|Helen Thomas, White House Press Icon Dies at 92|
|By MATTHEW LAROTONDA (@mattlarotonda) and ANN COMPTON (@AnnCompton)||Jul 20, 2013, 9:56 AM|
Helen Thomas, the face of American journalism at the White House for over five decades died today at the age of 92.
Thomas' career ranged through ten presidencies, from Kennedy to Obama until her controversial retirement in 2010.
Bestowed with the unofficial title of "dean" of the White House Press corps, she was known for firing blunt and even confrontational questions at the leaders of the free world, particularly into her latter years.
She broke glass ceilings before anyone called them that.
President Obama called Thomas a "true pioneer."
"What made Helen the "Dean of the White House Press Corps" was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account. Our thoughts are with Helen's family, her friends, and the colleagues who respected her so deeply," Obama said in a statement.
As a young woman with the wire service United Press International, she volunteered to sit outside the home where then-President-elect John F. Kennedy was living, and then simply walked into the White House press room on Inauguration day to become the first female member of the press corps.
Born to humble beginnings as the daughter of Lebanese immigrants in Winchester, Kentucky and graduated from Wayne State University in 1942.
By the 1950s, a time when most female journalists wrote on homemaking and other light faire, she was covering federal agencies.
Eventually, Thomas would rise to become a legendary figure to Washington journalists and was held with equal respect by the administrations she covered.
Tradition held she was given the first question at press conferences and authority to close them with the words, "Thank you, Mr. President."
In the White House press briefing room, she was the only reporter to have a seat assigned to her by name rather than the respective media organizations.
She was also the first woman to be admitted to Washington's elite Gridiron Club, an invitation-only conglomerate of top Washington reporters.
"We are the watchdogs," she once said of a reporter's role in the capitol city. "Self-anointed, self-appointed but we're there and it is very important we be there."
"We are a pain in the neck. we're there intruding, watching, asking questions, trying to decide who they are, what they are, constantly nit-picking," she said.
She wrote a number of books on her time in the District of Columbia, including her final, "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public."
That acute criticism of modern media and politicians fueled the final years of her career, where she became more openly liberal with harsh stances against the Iraq war, Afghanistan, and what she considered abuse of power by the presidency.
The bias offended some veteran Beltway reporters.
Her time at the White House came to an end in 2010 after controversial remarks she made on the Middle East, then as a columnist at Hearst newspapers.
In a conversation with a rabbi that was caught on camera, Thomas said Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine" and that Jewish people should "go home" to Poland, Germany, the U.S., and other countries.
Thomas apologized for the remarks, saying they did not reflect her "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."
She resigned her tenure at the White House a week later, spending her final years writing for smaller publications.
Although her White House career ended in controversy, Thomas will be remembered as a pioneer to aspiring journalists.
"Pushy? Yes," Veteran ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson once said of his old colleague. "Helen is pushy and I use that as a badge of honor."