WASHINGTON – Covering 10 presidents over five decades, Helen Thomas aged into a legend. She was the only reporter with her name inscribed on a chair in the White House briefing room – her own front-row seat to history.
Starting as a copy girl in 1943, when women were considered unfit for serious reporting, Thomas rose to bureau chief.
Working at a news service, where writers expect obscurity, she became one of journalism’s most recognized faces. Thomas embraced her role as a Washington institution, doing cameos in movies, giving lectures, writing books about her life until the spotlight landed on inflammatory remarks she made about Israel.
The uproar pushed her out of the White House press room at age 89.
Thomas, 92, died surrounded by family and friends at her Washington apartment on Saturday, the family said in a statement. A friend, Muriel Dobbin, told The Associated Press that Thomas had been ill for a long time, and in and out of the hospital before coming home Thursday.
Thomas made her name as a bulldog for United Press International in the great wire-service rivalries of old, and as a pioneer for women in journalism.
She was persistent to the point of badgering. One White House press secretary described her questioning as torture – and he was one of her fans.
In her later years, her refusal to conceal her strong opinions, even when posing questions to a president, and her public hostility toward Israel caused discomfort among colleagues.
In 2010, that tendency ended her storied career at the White House. She told a rabbi making a video that Israeli Jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go home to Germany, Poland or the United States.
In her long career, Thomas was indelibly associated with the ritual ending White House news conferences. She was often the one to deliver the closing line: Thank you, Mr. President – four polite words that belied a fierce competitive streak.
After she quit UPI in 2000 – by then an outsized figure in a shrunken organization – her influence waned. The Bush administration marginalized her, clearly peeved with a journalist who had challenged President George W. Bush to his face on the Iraq war and declared him the worst president in history.
Thomas was accustomed to getting under the skin of presidents.
If you want to be loved, she said years earlier, go into something else.