Just days after suggesting that Israelis should go "home" to Germany, Poland or the United States, Helen Thomas, 89, who for decades famously occupied a middle seat of the front row of the White House press room, was herself making an unexpected departure last night – from her job.
The longest serving member of the White House press corps by generations – she reported from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for 57 years, going back to when Dwight Eisenhower was President – Ms Thomas announced she was retiring from Hearst Newspapers where she was a columnist.
Sometimes abrasive and blunt in her questioning of commanders-in-chief, she vacated her reserved seat under a malodorous cloud thanks the remarks made during a videotaped interview for a website called rabbilive.com. She said that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" before suggesting which countries they might like to live in instead.
The remark brought rebukes from Jewish groups and several political personalities in the US. Robert Gibbs, the current White House spokesman, joined the chorus calling her words "offensive and reprehensible".
That she had landed herself in considerable trouble had already become clear over the weekend when the agency that gave her speaking engagements said it was dropping her as a client. Meanwhile, a high school that had booked her to speak to students withdrew the invitation.
"Helen Thomas announced on Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately," Hearst News Service reported.
Her colleagues in the West Wing press room had shown no signs of coming to her aid as the controversy over her comments grew. Indeed, the White House Correspondents Association called them "indefensible".
"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," the association's board said.
For most of her career, Ms Thomas reported for United Press International, the wire agency which in recent years has faded in importance. Nearly 10 years ago, she left to join Hearst to write columns on national affairs. Her stature grew not only because of her skills verbally fencing with presidents but also because of the milestones she achieved as a woman in what was once a male-dominated business.
Ms Thomas acknowledged at the weekend. that she had erred in the interview. "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians," she said. Her apology was not enough to calm the storm she found herself in, however.
Mr Gibbs gave his judgement in the briefing room in which Ms Thomas had become a seemingly immovable fixture. Her remarks "do not reflect certainly most of the people here and certainly not those of the administration," he said.Reuse content