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Helen Thomas ends White House career amid uproar

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June 8, 2010


Photostream : Veteran White House Journalist Helen Thomas

(ETAIWANNEWS) 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 Monday in a flap over saying Israelis should 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, a daughter of Lebanese immigrants, joined UPI in 1943 and began covering the White House for the wire service in 1960. Fiercely competitive, she became the first female White House bureau chief for a news service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She also was the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members.

“Helen was just a vacuum cleaner about information,” said author Kay Mills, who took dictation from Thomas as a young UPI staffer and wrote “A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page.”

“She made sure she had everything,” Mills said. “She may have been covering Jackie Kennedy and a birthday party for one of the children, but I’ll tell you, the desk had every bit of information it ever needed.”

When the Watergate scandal began consuming President Richard M. 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 men.

Thomas 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.

She aggressively questioned President George W. Bush and his press secretaries about the war in Iraq, which many of Bush’s supporters said would make Israel safer by ridding the Middle East of Saddam Hussein.

She gave President Barack Obama similar handling about Afghanistan. This exchange occurred 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 expressed privately their discomfort over Thomas’ 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.”

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 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.

Thomas had been scheduled to speak at the June 14 graduation of Walt Whitman High School in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, but Principal Alan Goodwin wrote in a Sunday e-mail to students and parents that she was being replaced.

“Graduation celebrations are not the venue for divisiveness,” Goodwin wrote.

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.”

In an interview, Nesenoff said his website has received more than 1 million hits since the interview was posted last week.

“It wasn’t angrily said. It was just said. It was insulting and hurtful,” he said of Thomas’ comments.

He said he has another excerpt that will probably be posted soon, although he would not reveal what was said.

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 trail blazer 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.  (*)





Photostream : Veteran White House Journalist Helen Thomas

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WASHINGTON – JUNE 07: The center seat on the front row of the Brady Press Briefing Room (L) is assigned to veteran Hearst Newspapers journalist Helen Thomas sits empty in the West Wing of the White House June 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. Thomas retired Monday after making remarks in May suggesting that Israeli Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and return to Germany and Poland or wherever they came from. Often called the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps,’ Thomas, 89, has covered the White House since 1960 after reporting on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign

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WASHINGTON – JUNE 07: The empty center seat on the front row of the Brady Press Briefing Room is assigned to veteran Hearst Newspapers journalist Helen Thomas in the West Wing of the White House June 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. Thomas retired Monday after making remarks in May suggesting that Israeli Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and return to Germany and Poland or wherever they came from. Often called the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps,’ Thomas, 89, has covered the White House since 1960 after reporting on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

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WASHINGTON – MAY 27: (FILE PHOTO) Veteran reporter Helen Thomas (C) asks a question to U.S. President Barack Obama during a news conference at the East Room of the White House May 27, 2010 in Washington, DC. Thomas, 89, announced her retirement as a columnist for Hearst News Service June 7, 2010 after controversial comments she made about Israel created an uproar.

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Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas asks a question of President Barack Obama during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, in this photo taken Thursday, May 27, 2010. Thomas abruptly retired Monday as a columnist for Hearst News Service following remarks she made about Israel that were denounced by the White House and her press corps colleagues.

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WASHINGTON – NOVEMBER 12: (FILE PHOTO) Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas listens during the White House daily briefing at the White House briefing room November 12, 2008 in Washington, DC. Thomas, 89, announced her retirement as a columnist for Hearst News Service June 7, 2010 after controversial comments she made about Israel created an uproar.

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Hearst White House columnist Helen Thomas poses a question to. U.S. President Barack Obama during his first news conference as president in the East Room of the White House in Washington in this February 9, 2009 file photo. Thomas, who has covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, abruptly retired on June 7, 2010 amid a storm of criticism over her controversial remarks about Israel. Picture taken February 9, 2009.

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WASHINGTON – MAY 01: Reporter Helen Thomas (C) arrives at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on May 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. The annual dinner featured comedian Jay Leno and was attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

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FILE – In this March 30, 2010 file photo, Helen Thomas sits next to Bill Plante of CBS in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Thomas abruptly retired Monday, according to her employer, Hearst News Service.

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WASHINGTON – AUGUST 2: (FILE PHOTO) Senior White House Correspondent Helen Thomas reads the newspaper while sitting in her chair in the White House press room August 2, 2006 in Washington, DC. Thomas, 89, announced her retirement as a columnist for Hearst News Service June 7, 2010 after controversial comments she made about Israel created an uproar.

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WASHINGTON – AUGUST 04: U.S. (FILE PHOTO) President Barack Obama (R) kisses White House veteran correspondent Helen Thomas (L) as he brings surprise birthday cupcakes to celebrate her birthday in the White House briefing room August 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. Thomas, 89, announced her retirement as a columnist for Hearst News Service June 7, 2010 after controversial comments she made about Israel created an uproar.

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U.S. President Barack Obama puts his arm around Hearst White House columnist Helen Thomas after presenting her with cupcakes in honor of her birthday in the James Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, in this August 4, 2009 file photo. Thomas, under fire for controversial comments she made about Israel and Palestinians, announced her retirement on June 7, 2010.

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U.S. President George W. Bush greets veteran reporter Helen Thomas (L) during a surprise visit to a briefing in the press briefing room of the White House in Washington in this August 2, 2006 file photo. Thomas, who has covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, abruptly retired on June 7, 2010 amid a storm of criticism over her controversial remarks about Israel. Picture taken August 2, 2006.

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White House correspondent Helen Thomas (2nd L) takes notes as former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson faces reporters during a news conference in the White House Oval Office, in this handout photograph taken on April 25, 1968 and obtained on June 7, 2010. Thomas announced her retirement on June 7, 2010 according to media reports.

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Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas is pictured as she departs the West Wing of the White House in Washington, July 27, 2009. Thomas, who has covered every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, abruptly retired on Monday amid a storm of criticism over her controversial remarks about Israel. Picture taken July 27, 2009.