Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Helen Thomas, White House Journalist

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Helen Thomas, White House Journalist

Article excerpt

Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers with her characteristic blunt questions and sharp tone.

Helen Thomas, whose keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy made her a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and later the dean of the White House briefing room, died Saturday at home in Washington. She was 92.

Her death was announced by the Gridiron Club, one of Washington's leading news societies. Ms. Thomas was a past president of that organization.

Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps -- her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference, "Thank you, Mr. President."

Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality, not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also among television audiences across the country. "Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism," President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday. "She never failed to keep presidents -- myself included -- on their toes."

Presidents grew to respect, even to like, Ms. Thomas for her forthrightness and stamina, which sustained her well after the age at which most people had settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4, 1997, her 77th birthday. Twelve years later, Mr. Obama gave her cupcakes for her 89th. At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr. Obama called on her, saying: "Helen, I'm excited. This is my inaugural moment."

But 16 months later, Ms. Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.

In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her "heartfelt belief" that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced "mutual respect and tolerance."

In the Watergate era, she was a favorite late-night confidante of Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, Mr. Nixon's attorney general and campaign official. Mrs. Mitchell told Ms. Thomas that responsibility for the "third-rate burglary" at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the cover- up that followed it had gone far above the midlevel officials who were implicated early on. …

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