Helen Thomas: Bitter end for 'dean' of press corps

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Washington

Image caption,
President Obama gave Helen Thomas cupcakes on her 89th birthday

She is the only reporter to have had her name engraved on a chair in the White House press briefing room.

But after five decades of covering the White House, Helen Thomas, 89, retired under a cloud on Monday - caught on camera saying Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany, Poland and America.

The controversy - for which she has apologised - is a bitter end to a storied career.

Born in 1920, Thomas started her life in journalism as a copy girl in a small Washington newspaper and worked her way up to the middle seat of the front row of the briefing room, the seat that now bears her name.


When she first started covering the White House in the early days of President John F Kennedy's administration, Thomas wasn't actually assigned the beat.

She just started showing up every day.

Image caption,
Thomas, pictured with President Reagan in 1981, covered 10 presidents

Thomas was a trailblazer: the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), the first female officer of the National Press Club and the only female print journalist to travel with President Richard Nixon on his first trip to China.

The unofficial dean of the White House press corps, Thomas worked for United Press International (UPI) for 57 years.

She left UPI after it was bought out by a company owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, whose adherents are known colloquially as Moonies.

She described the acquisition as a "bridge too far" and soon took up her most recent position as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

'Inaugural moment'

In her day, she had a reputation as a tenacious reporter, unafraid to ask tough questions.

Persistent and energetic, being grilled by Thomas was almost a rite of passage for new presidents.

"This is my inaugural moment here. I'm really excited," President Obama joked after calling on Thomas in his first press conference as president.

Openly liberal, Thomas gained prominence with a new generation late in her career when videos of her aggressive questioning of President Bush and then White House spokesperson Dana Perino over the Iraq war went viral.

Her questions also brought criticism, particularly from conservatives who believe her reporting is biased.

On Monday, Thomas was denounced by former press secretaries and dropped from the speaking agency that books public appearances on her behalf.

Reporters though were spotted snapping photographs of her iconic seat in the briefing room, which the WHCA must now allocate to another outlet.

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