Helen Thomas, pioneer journalist, dies at 92

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Helen Thomas, the irrepressible White House correspondent who used her seat in the front row of history to grill nine presidents — often to their discomfort and was not shy about sharing her opinions, died Saturday. She was 92.

Thomas, who died at her apartment in Washington, had been ill for a long time, and in and out of the hospital before coming home Thursday, according to a friend, Muriel Dobbin.

Thomas made her name as a bulldog for United Press International in the great wire-service rivalries of old, and as a pioneer for women in journalism.

She was persistent to the point of badgering. One White House press secretary described her questioning as “torture” — and he was one of her fans.

Her refusal to conceal her strong opinions, even when posing questions to a president, and her public hostility toward Israel, caused discomfort among colleagues.

In 2010, that tendency finally ended a career which had started in 1943 and made her one of the best known journalists in Washington. On a videotape circulated on the Internet, she said Israelis should “get out of Palestine” and “go home” to Germany, Poland or the United States. The remark brought down widespread condemnation and she ended her career.

In January 2011, she became a columnist for a free weekly paper in a Washington suburb, months after the controversy forced her from her previous post.

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 Kennedy. Her freedom to voice her peppery opinions as a speaker and a Hearst columnist came late in her career.

The Bush administration marginalized 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.

After she quit UPI in 2000 — by then an outsized figure in a shrunken organization — her influence waned.

Thomas was accustomed to getting under the skin of presidents, if not to the cold shoulder.

“If you want to be loved,” she said years earlier, “go into something else.”

There was a lighter mood in August 2009, on her 89th birthday, when President Barack Obama popped into in the White House briefing room unannounced. He led the roomful of reporters in singing “Happy Birthday to You” and gave her cupcakes. As it happened, it was the president’s birthday too, his 48th.

Thomas was at the forefront of women’s achievements in journalism. She was one of the first female reporters to break out of the White House “women’s beat” — the soft stories about presidents’ kids, wives, their teas and their hairdos — and cover the hard news on an equal footing with men.

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