Helen Thomas, tarnished icon

Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately, in the wake of a controversy over her comments on Israel, according to a report from her employer, Hearst News Service.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; 7:25 AM

Helen Thomas ended a storied career at the White House dating back to the Kennedy era on Monday, days after making inflammatory remarks on Israel to a rabbi with a video camera.

"Frankly, I was shocked," said Rabbi David Nesenoff, who was at the White House for a Jewish heritage celebration on May 27 and simply asked the Hearst Newspapers columnist, "Any comments on Israel?" Her response -- that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany, Poland and America -- triggered a wave of denunciations that a narrowly worded apology did little to quell.

"This was vile, a paradigm of hate talk," said Nesenoff, who was accompanied by his 17-year-old son and a friend. "She felt comfortable saying this in front of two boys with yarmulkes on."

While the 89-year-old Thomas is renowned as a trailblazer who aggressively questioned 10 presidents -- including President Obama, whom she pressed last month on Afghanistan -- her hostility toward Israel has been no secret within the Beltway. Though she gave up her correspondent's job a decade ago, she retained her front-row briefing-room seat, even as colleagues sometimes rolled their eyes at her obvious biases.

"She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view, and there were some reporters who felt that was inappropriate," said CBS correspondent Mark Knoller. "As a columnist she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters."

But few called her out for such conduct -- until Nesenoff, who heads a Long Island synagogue, posted the video on his site RabbiLIVE.com. Commentators on the right and left quickly eviscerated Thomas.

"She's always said crazy stuff," said National Review Online columnist Jonah Goldberg. "One reason she gets a pass is that there's an entrenched system of deference to seniority in the White House press corps. . . . This newfound horror and dismay that people are expressing about Helen Thomas are beyond a day late and a dollar short."

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic reporter who specializes in the Middle East said: "Helen Thomas offered the official Hamas position, as far as I can tell. There's a level of insensitivity that's almost comical in what she said, to tell Jews to go back to Germany, where things worked out so well for them."

Thomas told a Washington Post reporter Friday night that she was "very sorry" and had "made a mistake," but did not address the substance of her comments. By Monday morning -- after her agent had dropped her, Hearst expressed deep regret over her remarks and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called them "offensive and reprehensible" -- she decided to call it quits. Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, said in a statement that her comments "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."

She is the most famous woman ever to cover 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and served as the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, which on Monday called her comments "indefensible." Thomas has written several books about the White House and played herself in the movies "Dave" (1993) and "The American President" (1995).

In 2000, when Thomas resigned from United Press International after it was bought by News World Communications, a company controlled by officials of the Unification Church, Dan Rather called her "a hero of journalism."

During George W. Bush's administration, Thomas became an icon for some liberals who applauded her outspoken opposition to the Iraq invasion and cast her as tougher than the reporters who failed to skeptically question the march to war. Ari Fleischer, who was Bush's first press secretary, led the campaign for her ouster over the weekend, e-mailing journalists who might have missed her remarks.

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