WASHINGTON – Helen Thomas, the opinionated White House correspondent who used her seat in the front row of history to grill 10 presidents, lost her storied perch Monday in a flap over calling on Israelis to get “out of Palestine.”
Thomas, 89, who made her name as a bulldog for United Press International and was a pioneer for women in journalism, abruptly retired as a columnist for Hearst News Service. The announcement, in a terse statement by Hearst, came after videotaped remarks she made to an independent filmmaker spread virally through the Internet.
She apologized, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced her comments as “offensive and reprehensible.” Her press corps colleagues with the White House Correspondents Association issued a rare admonishment calling them “indefensible.”
Thomas joined UPI in 1943 and began covering the White House for the wire service in 1960. She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members.
She retained her place on the front row of the White House briefing room after joining Hearst in 2000 and remained persistent to the point of badgering.
A daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she did little to hide her pro-Arab views. She sharply questioned President Barack Obama two weeks ago.
“Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are you 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,’” she said.
Her retirement was set in motion by a website, rabbilive.com, that relaunched only last week after having previously existed to beam religious services to military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rabbi David Nesenoff, an independent filmmaker from Long Island who runs the website, said he approached Thomas outside the White House after being there for Jewish Heritage Day on May 27.
He asked whether she had any comments on Israel. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she replied.
“Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland,” she continued. Asked where they should go, she answered, “They should go home.”
“Where’s home?” Nesenoff asked.
“Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else,” Thomas replied.
Writing on her website Monday, Thomas said, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
She added: “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.”