Pioneering front-row journalist Helen Thomas dies at 92


Story highlights

NEW: Thomas covered White House with "intensity and tenacity," Clintons say

Thomas will be buried in Detroit

She was a trailblazer on the White House press corps

Her retirement in 2010 came amid controversy

Washington CNN —  

Trailblazing White House journalist Helen Thomas has died at age 92 after a long illness, sources told CNN Saturday.

Thomas covered 10 presidents over nearly half a century, and became a legend in the industry.

She was a fixture at White House news conferences – sitting front and center late in her career – where she frequently exasperated government spokesmen with her pointed questions.

Thomas began covering the White House for United Press International when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961 and was a fixture there until her retirement in 2010.

She was considered the dean of the White House press corps because she was the longest-serving White House journalist.

Thomas will be buried in Detroit, and a memorial service is planned in Washington in October, according to her family.

President Barack Obama said that it was “not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account,” that put her in high esteem.

In a written statement, Obama called Thomas a “true pioneer” and said she kept the presidents she covered – including himself – on their toes.

“Helen was just a living inspiration”

Her career, however, came to an end under a cloud of controversy.

Thomas, then working for the media conglomerate Hearst as a syndicated columnist, was blasted for comments she made regarding Jewish people.

In 2010, 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.”

Thomas apologized for her remarks, writing, “They do not reflect my heartfelt 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 announced her retirement one week later.

In 2012, Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi presented Thomas with an award.

She was a mentor to young journalists

Helen Thomas: Fast Facts

Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, was born in Winchester, Kentucky, on August 4, 1920. She was one of nine children. Thomas was raised in Detroit, where she attended Wayne State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1942.

In October 1971, Thomas married Douglas Cornell; he died in 1982.

She wrote three books: “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times” (1999); “Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House” (2002); and “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public” (2006).

Share your memories

In describing her job, Thomas once said, “I’ve never covered the president in any way other than that he is ultimately responsible.”

Along the way, she broke some barriers by becoming the first female president of the prestigious White House Correspondents’ Association and Washington’s Gridiron Club.

“I hope there are many women following me right in this same spot,” she said. Well into her 80s, she was a mentor to many young journalists.

Thomas left UPI in May 2000, when the wire service was sold to a company controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean founder and leader of the worldwide Unification Church.

Two months later, Hearst News Service hired her as a syndicated columnist, and she returned to the White House for fodder for her columns.

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recalled Thomas’ “tough-minded dedication.”

“Helen was a pioneering journalist who, while adding more than her share of cracks to the glass ceiling, never failed to bring intensity and tenacity to her White House beat,” the Clintons said in a statement.

“… Her work was extraordinary because of her intelligence, her lively spirit and great sense of humor, and most importantly her commitment to the role of a strong press in a healthy democracy.”

No question seemed off-limits

Colleagues remember her as a genuinely fearless woman who asked the toughest questions of presidents, no matter their party.