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Helen Thomas: A troubling end to a distinguished career

Her terrible answer to a question about Israel may overshadow a long and distinguished career, in which she broke many glass ceilings.

June 09, 2010

Blunt, irascible, argumentative. Those words have long been used to describe Helen Thomas, the grande dame of the White House press corps, particularly in recent years as her questions became less and less coherent. Now, a career spanning 10 presidencies and nearly half a century has come to an end over her own terrible answer to a question about Israeli-Palestinian relations.


FOR THE RECORD:
Helen Thomas: A June 9 editorial about the former columnist's suggestion that Jews should "go home" referred to Poland and Germany as "the countries that exterminated their families." Because Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, it would have been more accurate to say "the countries where their families were exterminated." —

After decades as a reporter for United Press International, Thomas had become a columnist for Hearst Corp. She was known as a liberal and as a critic of Israel, and certainly could have contributed to a healthy debate about Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories or U.S. policy in the Mideast. But that's not what she did in a short videotaped interview in which she said that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland and Germany. Whatever her intentions, the remarks were deeply offensive to Jews, who heard her to be saying they should return to countries that exterminated their families. On Monday, Thomas issued an apology and resigned.

It is a sad finale for someone who helped break down barriers for women journalists at the center of American power largely through determination and hard work. UPI assigned Thomas to John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign — to cover his beautiful wife. When Kennedy won, Thomas went to the White House and reportedly dared her bosses to remove her from the job. They didn't. She joined a Washington press establishment that, even during appearances of presidents and foreign heads of state, confined women reporters to the balcony of the National Press Club, until the old boy's network finally agreed to accept women members in 1971. She was the first woman to serve as White House bureau chief for a wire service, the only woman journalist to accompany President Nixon on his historic trip to China, and the first female officer of not only the National Press Club but the White House Correspondents' Assn.

A photograph of Thomas in her heyday shows the petite reporter, notebook in hand, chasing long-legged President Gerald R. Ford down the tarmac to an airplane — a picture of her doggedness. It would be unfortunate if Thomas were remembered only for her offensive remark on Israel and not for her decades shattering glass ceilings.

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