To many in Washington, two sets of rules seemed to apply for journalists covering the president: those for regular White House correspondents, and those for Helen Thomas.
To every president since John F. Kennedy, Ms. Thomas, 89, was known for posing questions in the kind of tough and provocative manner that could make press secretaries gasp and her colleagues cringe.
And it appears that her tart tongue may have finally ended her career. Ms. Thomas said on Monday that she was retiring, effective immediately, after an uproar over her recent remarks that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go home to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”
As the furor over her comments went viral, her speaking agency dropped her, a suburban Washington high school where she was scheduled to deliver a graduation speech disinvited her, and her colleagues threatened to take away her prized perch in the front row of the White House briefing room. Ms. Thomas could not be reached for comment.
It was an ignominious end for Ms. Thomas, who helped clear the path for countless women in journalism, and was bestowed with the unofficial title of dean of the White House press corps. Few White House correspondents were ever afforded the level of deference she has been shown by presidents and fellow reporters. Her front row seat bears a small plaque with her name, the only seat in the briefing room designated by the name of a person, not a news organization.
This show of respect continued despite what many in Washington observed to be the increasingly hostile and outlandish nature of her questions in recent years — and despite the fact that her column was not widely read. Though she has worked as a columnist for Hearst for the last 10 years, she was known more for her presence at White House press conferences than for her writing. Ms. Thomas seemed particularly critical of the Iraq war and repeatedly pointed out during White House briefings that the American-led invasion was costing civilian lives. Dana Perino, a press secretary under President George W. Bush, once scolded Ms. Thomas, saying that the United States regretted the war’s civilian toll. Ms. Thomas, unmoved, shot back, “Regret, it doesn’t bring back a life.”
“The rules have been different for Helen for many years, and only for Helen,” said Ari Fleischer, another Bush press secretary who had called on Ms. Thomas to step down after she made her latest remarks about Israel and the Jews. “Helen earned that right, and she was treated differently. And I never minded it. I enjoyed my ideological thrust and parry with Helen.”
He added, “And sadly she brought this on herself.”
Mr. Fleischer is just one of many of Washington’s most powerful figures who has clashed with Ms. Thomas over the years. President Kennedy once remarked that she would be “a nice girl if she’d ever get rid of that pad and pencil.” And Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, once jokingly griped, “Isn’t there a war somewhere we could send her to?”
In a statement released by Hearst, Ms. Thomas apologized for her remarks. “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Ms. Thomas’s statement said. “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.”
Before joining Hearst, she had worked for United Press International since 1943. A native of Detroit and the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she had a résumé with a litany of firsts: first female officer of the National Press Club, first female president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Ms. Thomas’s tone became more opinionated in recent years after she moved from being a news reporter to being a columnist once she joined Hearst. The White House Correspondents’ Association now says it is re-evaluating whether to allow opinion columnists reserved seats in the briefing room.
Her remarks about Israel surfaced late last week in a video filmed by a Long Island rabbi who had been visiting the White House for a Jewish heritage event on May 27. The rabbi, who is also a blogger, happened to bump into Ms. Thomas on the White House lawn.
“I recognized her and thought, ‘Oh this is interesting.’ I went and said hello. I had told her what we were there for, and that I had been asking people about Israel,” the rabbi, David Nesenoff, said.
“I couldn’t believe what came out of her mouth,” he added. “I was shocked and hurt.”
Sam Donaldson, the former White House correspondent for ABC News and a friend of Ms. Thomas, said she had been allowed to keep her seat once she became a columnist because she had become such a mainstay of the White House press corps.
“No one wanted to say now that you’re no longer representing U.P.I. you have to move to the back row — because she was Helen,” Mr. Donaldson said.
Other former colleagues of Ms. Thomas recalled that her brashness made her something of a marvel in the press corps.
“Cranky was her modus operandi. And it worked,” said Charles Bierbauer, who was CNN’s White House correspondent for nine years and is now the dean of the college of mass communications and information studies at the University of South Carolina.
Ms. Thomas was also known for her stubbornness. Mr. Bierbauer recalled a conversation he had with her when he left the White House beat in 1993.
“I said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay?’ And she said, ‘Until they take me out feet first.’ ”
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