For more than half a century, Helen Thomas owned the most valuable piece of real estate in the White House briefing room. Her front-row seat at presidential press conferences and its attendant benefits—she was often called on first and usually ended the gatherings with a signature “Thank you, Mr. President”—made her the unofficial dean of the White House press corps. Her bold, irksome questions were like hot pokers to 10 U.S. presidents, and her fearless approach rattled press secretaries and set a tone for generations of straight-shooting, badgering reporters.
Last summer, still working full-time at 89, she saw her decades-long career fall to pieces after a two-minute video clip went viral on YouTube. A Long Island rabbi and blogger visiting the White House turned his camera on Thomas on May 27 and asked for “any comments on Israel.” Thomas instantly shot back, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” adding that the Jews “can go home” to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.” Endless media outrage ensued, prompting Thomas to issue an apology and abruptly “resign” from Hearst Newspapers on June 7. Her speaking agency dropped her, journalism schools and organizations rescinded awards named in her honor and she lost that prized seat in the White House.