WASHINGTON — 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, 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.”
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 ended her career.
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.
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.”
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.
She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974.
She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members and she had to fight for admission into the 1959 luncheon speech where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned: “We will bury you.”