|Reporter Helen Thomas said she regretted telling a filmmaker to tell Israel “to get the hell out of Palestine.’’ (Getty Images/ File 2006)|
Veteran reporter quits over remarks
WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, the opinionated White House correspondent who used her seat in the front row of history to grill 10 presidents and often exasperate them, lost her storied perch yesterday 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 began covering the White House for UPI in 1960. Fiercely competitive, 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.
When the Watergate scandal began consuming Nixon’s presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband, John, by the president’s advisers.
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. During George W. Bush’s presidency, her questions to both the president and his press secretaries were almost exclusively about the war in Iraq. She sharply questioned President 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.
Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said journalists had privately expressed discomfort over Thomas’s role with what they perceived as her advocacy from a plum spot in the White House press room.
“Helen had a special stature that she earned,’’ he said. “That’s what’s so sad, in that she diminished what she earned.’’
Rabbi David Nesenoff, an independent filmmaker from Long Island, said he approached Thomas outside the White House after being there for Jewish Heritage Day on May 27. He said he was there with his teenage son and a friend, who were both wearing yarmulkes, and approached Thomas to talk.
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 yesterday, Thomas said, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians.’’
A statement signed by officers of the White House Correspondents Association said: “Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by the comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trailblazer on the White House beat.’’
Time and again, Thomas issued a caveat about her work: “In my career you’re only as good as your last story.’’
In her case, that last story turned out to be about her.