Skip to main content

White House correspondent Thomas retires amid controversial comments

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Rabbi who recorded interview says Thomas was giving Jews "the finger"
  • Thomas has been covering the White House since 1960
  • Retirement comes amid furor over remarks about Jews
  • Thomas apologized for comments Friday

Washington (CNN) -- Longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas has retired effective immediately, Hearst Corporation said Monday.

The media conglomerate had employed Thomas as a syndicated columnist for its newspaper chain. Her retirement comes amid a furor created last week by her controversial comments regarding Jewish people.

Thomas, 89, was considered the dean of the White House press corps, as she was the longest-serving White House journalist. She has been reporting on administrations since 1960, when she began covering then-President-elect John F. Kennedy and his family.

Thomas, had come under fire late last week when a YouTube video surfaced showing her saying that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine," and that the Jewish people should go home to "Poland, Germany ... and America and everywhere else."

In a posting on her website Friday, Thomas apologized for her remarks. "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," she wrote.

But the apology was not enough to silence critics, who began a rising chorus of calls for Thomas either to be terminated or suspended by Hearst.

Just prior to Hearst's announcement, the board of the White House Correspondents Association released a statement condemning Thomas' remarks. The group of White House reporters, which includes CNN's Ed Henry, called Thomas' remarks "indefensible."

Video: Thomas retires over Israel remarks
Video: Helen Thomas remarks 'reprehensible'
Video: Ari Fleischer slams Helen Thomas

The reporters' statement said, "Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by the comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trailblazer on the White House beat."

And during a Monday morning briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also criticized Thomas, saying, "Those remarks were offensive and reprehensible. I think she should and has apologized because obviously those remarks do not reflect the -- certainly the opinion of, I assume, most of the people in here and certainly not of the administration."

On Sunday, former White House Counsel Lanny Davis was among those calling for Hearst to take action against Thomas. She was also dropped by her agent, Nine Speakers Inc., on Sunday, and Craig Crawford, who co-authored "Listen Up, Mr. President" with Thomas, said in a blog post that he "will no longer be working with Helen on our book projects."

Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent, made the comments to Rabbi David Nesenoff of, who told CNN his hand-held camera was in plain sight on May 27 when he asked her for "Any comments on Israel?"

"Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she responded.

"Any better comments on Israel?" Nesenoff asked.

Thomas replied, "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land, it's not German. It's not Poland."

Nesenoff asked where the Jews should go, and Thomas responded, "They should go home," which the White House reporter identified as "Poland, Germany ... and America and everywhere else."

"This is a story about the power of video," Nesenoff said Monday. "This issue was anti-Semitism, within 24 hours over a million views, we find out that someone who's been reporting for 60 years, this is what she's about."

The rabbi said Thomas' website statement wasn't enough and that she owes the Jewish community an apology.

"My initial reaction is she can retire from her job but she can't retire from her responsibility to apologize for her comments," Nesenoff said. "There's a difference between telling your opinion and giving someone the finger, which is what she did."

The Anti-Defamation League said in a written statement that Thomas' apology "does not go far enough."

"Her remarks were outrageous, offensive and inappropriate," ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman said in the statement. "Her suggestion that Israelis should go back to Poland and Germany is bigoted and shows a profound ignorance of history. We believe Thomas needs to make a more forceful and sincere apology for the pain her remarks have caused."

Her apology also was not enough for Davis, who served as special counsel to former President Bill Clinton.

"Helen Thomas, who I used to consider a close friend and who I used to respect, has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot," Davis said. "This is not about her disagreement about her criticisms of Israel. She has a right to criticize Israel and that is not the same as being an anti-Semite."

Davis added, "If she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa, what would the White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials -- much less a privileged honorary seat?"

Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for former President George W. Bush, also said Thomas should be fired because of her remarks. He reiterated that demand in a statement provided to CNN Sunday.

"Helen's statement calling for the religious cleansing of Israel is reprehensible," Fleischer said. "If this isn't bigotry, what is? What she said is as bad as someone saying all blacks should leave America and go back to Africa."

"Hearst Newspapers should do the right thing and let Helen go," Fleischer added in the statement.

CNN's Kiran Khalid contributed to this report.