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Helen Thomas never shied from piping up. In the end, that was the problem.
"It's a tragic ending, but she did the right thing by announcing her resignation," Fleischer said Monday. He was joined in the effort by former Clinton White House aide Lanny Davis.
In 2002, Thomas asked Fleischer: "Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?"
Four years later, Thomas told Fleischer's successor, Tony Snow, that the United States "could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon" by Israel, but instead had "gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Snow tartly thanked her for "the Hezbollah view."
Mark Rabin, a former freelance cameraman for CNN, said that in a 2002 conversation at the White House, Thomas said "thank God for Hezbollah" for driving Israel out of Lebanon, adding that "Israel is the cause for 99 percent of all this terrorism."
The Daily Caller Web site noted that during a 2004 speech to the Al-Hewar Center, a Washington-based Arab organization, Thomas likened Palestinian protesters resisting the "tyrannical occupation" by Israel to "those who resisted the Nazi occupation."
A handful of journalists questioned her role over the years. In a 2006 New Republic piece, Jonathan Chait accused Thomas of "unhinged rants," noting that she had asked such questions as: "Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. . . . It's outrageous."
At Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School, where Thomas agreed to withdraw Sunday as a speaker at graduation, one student had created a Facebook page objecting to the choice. After the cancellation, other students started a group, which drew nearly 100 fans, titled "Helen Thomas should have been our graduation speaker." One of the creators of that group, Andrew Beehler, said that "the vast majority of the school" was in favor of the Thomas appearance, but that school leaders sided with a small group of vocal parents and students who threatened to protest at graduation.
The rabbi who triggered the controversy was deluged with e-mail and interview requests. After being told Monday that Thomas had retired, Nesenoff urged her to engage in a broader discussion about the Middle East. "She can't retire from the human race," he said. "May she live for many years, and use that time to make this moment an important moment." (The rabbi explained the delay in posting the May 27 video this way: "My son had finals, and he is my Webmaster.")
Sam Donaldson, a former White House correspondent for ABC, said Thomas was a "pioneer" for women, "and no one can take that away from Helen." While not defending her comments on Israel, he said they likely reflect the view of many people of Arab descent.
Donaldson, 76, who retired last year, was asked whether his friend, who started on the beat in 1960, had stayed too long.
"Her life was her work," Donaldson said. "She didn't have other interests. The thought that she'd give it up never entered her mind."
Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.