Helen Thomas, the longest-serving member of the White House press corps, retired abruptly but wisely yesterday after causing an uproar with her bizarre, offensive comments about Israel.
Thomas, 89, has been a fixture at the White House press conferences for half a century, for most of that time as a United Press International correspondent, but as an opinion columnist for Hearst since 2000. In that latter role, she used her ability to question the president as an opportunity to push her own views. While White House officials should expect tough questions from reporters, Thomas didn’t exactly challenge George W. Bush and his press aides; rather, she berated them — about war, Middle Eastern politics, and other subjects.
Whatever her interest in the Middle East, it was still jarring to hear her expound, in a video clip that was recorded outside the White House late last month, that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine’’ and move to Germany and Poland. Having lived through World War II, she should know full well why there are few Jews in those countries now.
Thomas broke new ground for women in journalism, has been a model of longevity, and was, until now, an object of great affection in political and media circles. But to treat Thomas as a Washington institution, rather than as just another reporter, required everyone involved to overlook some unprofessional conduct on Thomas’s part. Thomas has now apologized for her comments, but they remain a sad coda for a groundbreaking career.