Helen Thomas quits after Israel remarks

Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent made famous for her no-holds-barred questioning of presidents, announced her resignation Monday following controversial remarks she made about Israel.

In a statement from Hearst newspapers, where she works as a columnist, she said she is “retiring, effective immediately.”

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Thomas started at the White House as a reporter during the Kennedy administration but became more outspoken in recent years, when she shifted to column writing.

The reaction of most reporters, friends and former White House officials was that while the end to Thomas's career is sad, it is hardly surprising.

"It really is sadness. She should have retired years ago," one longtime friend said. "But I don’t think anyone is surprised at the anti-Israeli remarks. She has never made any secret of her animus toward Israel. I just hate to see her remembered for this instead of the pioneering work she did."

Former White House press secretary Dana Perino said: "It's a sad but appropriate end."

Others said they hope Thomas, who turns 90 in August, is remembered for the barriers she broke.

Cheryl Arvidson, a longtime friend and a former colleague of Thomas's at UPI, told The Hill in an e-mail that she hopes the end of Thomas's career does not taint a long and important legacy.

"Helen Thomas has been a strong advocate for women's rights and a trailblazer for women all of her life," Arvidson, now a spokeswoman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, said. "She broke down every barrier imaginable in Washington journalism and won every 'first' that existed. And more importantly, she always was there to lend a helping hand to the women who followed her. My sincere hope is that this current controversy does not detract in any way from the amazing accomplishments in her long and rich career."

Thomas’s resignation comes after outrage spread throughout the blogosphere in reaction to a video posted to RabbiLive.com. In it, Thomas said that Jews in Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else."

The comments were made during a White House event on May 27 celebrating Jewish heritage. And they came during a time of international outrage at Israel for its attack on a Turkish ship that left nine dead. Israel has rejected calls for an investigation of the incident.

The video of her remarks led to calls for her resignation and for the revoking of her White House press pass.

She later apologized, saying: "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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.”

White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) President Ed Chen criticized her in a statement Monday, sent out before the news of her resignation.

"Helen Thomas's comments were indefensible and the White House Correspondents’ Association board firmly dissociates itself from them. 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 trailblazer on the White House beat," he said.

The WHCA has been criticized for allowing Thomas a prized front-row seat in the White House press room even though she was no longer a reporter but working as a columnist. The association said it would address the matter in a meeting Thursday.
 
"We want to emphasize that the role of the WHCA is to represent the White House press corps in its dealings with the White House on coverage-related issues. We do not police the speech of our members or colleagues. We are not involved at all in issuing White House credentials; that is the purview of the White House itself. But the incident does revive the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front-row seat in the WH briefing room. That is an issue under the jurisdiction of this board. We are actively seeking input from our association members on this important matter, and we have scheduled a special meeting of the WHCA board on Thursday to decide on the seating issue," Chen said.

It’s not the first time Thomas has provoked outrage.

In August 2005 she told The Hill she would kill herself if Dick Cheney ran for president. "The day I say Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is one more liar," she said at the time.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday during his daily press briefing that Thomas "should and has apologized." Thomas was not at the briefing.

Photographers spent Monday taking shots of Thomas's front-row seat, emblazoned with her name. The rest of the nameplates in the White House press room have the names of news organizations on them.

Thomas has covered the White House for decades, and served as the first female president of the WHCA. She has been called the dean of the White House press corps.

Thomas joined the White House beat in 1960 when she covered President John F. Kennedy for UPI. She began the tradition of ending presidential press conferences with "Thank you, Mr. President."

Thomas resigned from UPI in 2000, after its purchase by News World Communications Inc., a company run by controversial Unification Church leader the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

She then joined Hearst as a columnist.

— This story was originally posted at 12:12 p.m. and updated at 12:27 p.m., 12:47 p.m., 1:54 p.m., 2:25 p.m., 3:50 p.m. and 7:44  p.m.