Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, a trailblazing journalist who reported on every US president from John Kennedy to Barack Obama, died on Saturday at the age of 92, the Gridiron Club and Foundation said.
Thomas, who broke many barriers for female journalists during her 49 years on the White House beat for the United Press International (UPI) new agency and Hearst newspapers, died after a long illness, the Washington journalists’ organization said in a statement.
As the senior news service correspondent at the White House, Thomas ended dozens of presidential news conferences with the familiar phrase: “Thank you, Mr President.”
She was known for her straight-to-the-point questioning of presidents and press secretaries in a manner that some considered dogged. Others, including many fellow reporters, considered her style in her later years to be too combative and agenda-driven.
Obama in a statement praised “her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” and said that in her long tenure Thomas “never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”
Former US president Bill Clinton and his wife, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, praised her as “a pioneering journalist” who added “more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling.”
In the past 10 years of her career, Thomas was a columnist for Hearst, a job that allowed her opinions to surface more than in her work as a hard-news reporter for UPI.
Thomas announced in June 2010 that she was retiring from Hearst, effective immediately, after comments she made about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.
Thomas believed the Washington media had grown soft and was reluctant to challenge the US government, views she shared in her 2007 book Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.
She was especially rough on former US president George W. Bush, whom in 2003 she described as the “worst president ever,” and the Iraq War, which she felt the media had abetted by not challenging Bush strongly enough on it.
In 2009 she asked Obama: “When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism: ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.’”
Thomas was often combative in dealing with the White House, particularly when she felt she was being denied access.
Reuters White House reporter Steve Holland recalled that early one morning during Bill Clinton’s presidency, she was spotted kicking the locked door to the White House press office, demanding to speak to the staff.
Thomas grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and will be buried in the city. Middle Eastern affairs were a strong interest and the impromptu comments about Israel and the Palestinians in May 2010 were her undoing.
Asked by an interviewer from Web site rabbilive.com if she had any comments about Israel, Thomas said: “Get the hell out of Palestine.”
Jews should “go home, to Poland and Germany, America and everywhere else,” she added.
After the interview spread on the Internet, her comments were criticized by the White House, the White House Correspondents’ Association, the co-author of one of her books and the agency that handled her speaking engagements, among others.
Shortly after, she announced her retirement, two months short of her 90th birthday.
Thomas established a number of firsts for women journalists.
She was the first female officer in the White House Correspondents Association in its 50-year history and its first female president.
In 1975, she broke the 90-year all-male barrier at the Gridiron Club, an organization of leading Washington journalists, and became its first female president in 1993.