Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, a trailblazing journalist who reported on every U.S. president from John Kennedy to Barack Obama, died on Saturday at the age of 92, The Gridiron Club and Foundation said.
Thomas, who worked the White House beat for 49 years for United Press International and Hearst newspapers, died after a long illness, Susan Hahn of the Washington journalists’ organization said in a statement.
As the senior news service correspondent at the White House, Thomas ended dozens of presidential news conferences with the familiar phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.”
She was known for her straight-to-the-point questioning of presidents and press secretaries in a manner that some considered dogged. Others, including many fellow reporters, considered her style in her later years to be too combative and agenda-driven.
President Barack Obama in a statement praised “her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” and noted that in her long tenure Thomas “never failed to keep presidents - myself included - on their toes.”
In the last 10 years of her career Thomas was a columnist for Hearst, a job that allowed her opinions to surface more than in her work as a hard-news reporter for UPI.
Thomas announced in June 2010 that she was retiring from Hearst, effective immediately, after comments she made about Israel and the Palestinians, including that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine,” were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.
Thomas later issued a statement: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt 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.”
Thomas believed the Washington media had grown soft and was reluctant to challenge government, views she shared in her 2007 book “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.”
She was especially rough on former President George W. Bush, who in 2003 she described as the “worst president ever,” and the Iraq war, which she felt the media had abetted by not challenging Bush strongly enough on it.