Will anyone replace her?

In the end, Helen Thomas got the last laugh. Before anybody could throw her out of the White House briefing room, she denied them the pleasure by walking out on her own.

Thomas herself couldn’t defend her latest comments about Israel — and she didn’t try. She apologized for them. The glee with which her colleagues in the media tossed her overboard should concern every member of the Fourth Estate, not to mention lovers of the First Amendment.

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Thomas’s flip remarks about all Jews in Israel going “home” to Poland were rightly condemned by both press secretary Robert Gibbs — “offensive and reprehensible” — and by the White House Correspondents’ Association — “indefensible.” In this day of demanding perfection from every politician or public figure, however, to condemn is not enough. We must also punish.

Nine Speakers, Thomas’s lecture agency, dropped her like a hot potato. Craig Crawford, her co-author, vowed he’d never work with her again. Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School canceled her commencement address.

But that was not enough to satisfy her critics. Time magazine’s Joe Klein demanded she be bounced from the briefing room’s front row. Former White House counsel Lanny Davis called for suspension of her White House press privileges. And former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (“People have to watch what they say, and watch what they do”) said Hearst Newspapers should fire her.

Let’s be honest. Helen Thomas is 89 years old. She’s not only old, she’s cranky. She’s a royal pain in the butt. In the briefing room, she didn’t raise her hand and didn’t always wait her turn. She didn’t try to couch her questions in the most polite terms. But, at the risk of being called “an anti-Semitic bigot,” I suggest members of the media think twice before joining the Helen Thomas hanging squad.

Do we really want access to the briefing room determined by the popularity of a reporter’s expressed, or repressed, political opinions? And, once inside the press room, should where one sits be decided by where one stands on the issues? If Thomas’s critics have their way, they’ll be posting signs in the briefing room. Front row: “No opinion.” Second row: “Favorable opinion.” Third row: “Critical, but friendly.” In the back row: “Obnoxious. Do not call on.”

Frankly, I’m sorry to see Thomas go. For two reasons. First, because she brought to the briefings an institutional memory and wealth of experience, dating back all the way to JFK, nobody else could match. And her departure, no matter how ignoble, in no way negates that incredible, trailblazing career.

Second, because — both as a reporter and, later, a columnist — she asked important, probing questions no one else would touch, especially on the use of military force. On March 22, 2006, for example, she challenged President George W. Bush: “Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Yet every reason you’ve given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war?” She’s been equally tough on President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBill Maher, Isiah Thomas score over the NFL's playing of 'Black national anthem' Democrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' White House debates vaccines for air travel MORE over Afghanistan.

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Last week, Thomas pressed Gibbs on the administration’s relatively mild response to Israel’s interception of an aid convoy bound for Gaza: “The initial reaction to the flotilla massacre — deliberate massacre, an international crime — was pitiful. What do you mean ‘you regret’ something that should be so strongly condemned?” That blunt question made Gibbs visibly squirm — which means Thomas was doing her job.

Helen Thomas is gone because of a comment made outside the briefing room. Inside, will anyone else dare ask the same tough questions?

Bill Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” and author of the new book “Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right Has Poisoned America’s Airwaves.”