Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, a trailblazing journalist who reported on every US president from John Kennedy to Barack Obama, has died at the age of 92.
Thomas, who worked the White House beat for 49 years for United Press International (UPI) and Hearst newspapers, died on Saturday after a long illness, the Gridiron Club, Washington’s historic press organisation, said.
In her long career, she was indelibly associated with the ritual ending White House news conferences.
She was often the one to deliver the closing line: “Thank you, Mister. President” – four polite words that belied a fierce competitive streak.
Her disdain for White House secrecy and dodging spanned five decades, back to President John F Kennedy.
Her freedom to voice her peppery opinions as a speaker and a Hearst columnist came late in her career.
The Bush administration marginalised her, clearly peeved with a journalist who had challenged President George W Bush to his face on the Iraq war and declared him the worst president in history.
In 2009 she asked President Barack Obama, “When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse and don’t give us this Bushism ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.'”
Thomas was assigned to the White House in 1961 by UPI in part because of the great interest in first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as the new young president.
She would go on to become the dean of the White House media corps and her front-row centre chair in the briefing room eventually had a plaque with her name, the only seat so designated.
Thomas grew up in Detroit, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants.
Middle Eastern affairs were a strong interest and impromptu comments about Israel and the Palestinians in May 2010 were her undoing.
Asked by an interviewer from the website rabbilive.com if she had any comments about Israel, Thomas responded, “Get the hell out of Palestine”.
She said “Remember, [the Palestinian] people are occupied, and it’s their land.”
After the interview spread on the Internet, her comments were criticised by the White House, the White House Correspondents’ Association, the co-author of one of her books and the agency that handled her speaking engagements, among others.
Shortly after, she announced her retirement, two months short of her 90th birthday.