Helen Thomas, Dogged White House Journalist, Dies At 92

ByGabriel Grand

Helen Thomas, the journalist who covered the White House for nearly half a century, died at age 92 on Saturday in her Washington home after a long battle with illness, according to CNN.

Thomas was a legend in her industry, making a name for herself as a pioneer for women in journalism. She covered every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Obama and was known for pressing government spokesmen with hardball questions.

In 1943, Thomas joined the United Press (now the United Press International), where she would continue to work for the next 57 years. Once she became the UPI's White House Correspondent in 1961, she quickly turned into a fixture at White House news conferences, earning herself the nicknames "Sitting Buddha" and "First Lady of the Press."

The Washington Post reports that her "refusal to conceal her strong opinions, even when posing questions to a president, and her public hostility toward Israel, caused discomfort among colleagues."

In 2010, her anti-Israel sentiment finally boiled over in a controversy that ended her career. In a YouTube video that surfaced that year, Thomas said that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine," and that the Jewish people should go home to "Poland, Germany ... and America and everywhere else."

Thomas later issued an apology for her remarks, writing, "They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon." One week later, she announced her retirement.

During the course of her career, Thomas wrote three books: Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times (1999), Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (2002), and Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public (2006).

In 2000, she left UPI to become a syndicated columnist for Hearst News Service, where she took advantage of her newfound editorial freedom.

"I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter," Thomas told an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in late 2002. "Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'"

In her pursuit of the truth, she was ruthless and targeted. “I respect the office of the presidency,” she told Ann McFeatters for a 2006 profile in Ms. magazine, “but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth.”

In recent years, Thomas loudly criticized both the Bush and Obama administrations for their failures. In 2003, she called Bush the "worst president in American history," and lambasted Obama for his attempts to control the press. 

“What the hell do they think we are — puppets?” Thomas once remarked. “They’re supposed to stay out of our business. They are our public servants. We pay them.”

Despite her somewhat stern demeanor, a lighter moment in Thomas' personal history occurred recently when President Obama brought Thomas cupcakes in the White House briefing room in celebration of her 89th birthday. As it so happened, that day, August 4th, 2009, was also Obama's birthday.

Ever since her days covering the Kennedy administration, Thomas was known for ending her presidential press conferences with a signature, "Thank you, Mr. President."

Now, however, it will be the White House's turn to thank Ms. Thomas for her long career of dedicated chronicling of the presidency.