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Helen Thomas, the forever fixture at White House press conferences who has been covering presidents going back to John F. Kennedy, abruptly retired from Hearst News Service today, her employer since leaving United Press International in 2000.
That decision by Thomas, 89, comes as she is embroiled in a controversy over remarks she made about Israel, Palestinians and Jews that were videotaped at, of all things, a White House Jewish Heritage Celebration on May 27 but which only came to light last Friday:
Q: Any comments on Israel?
Thomas: Tell 'em to get the hell out of Palestine.
Thomas: (Laughing) Remember these people are occupied, and it's their land, it's not German, it's not Poland.
Q: So where should they go, what should they do?
Thomas: They go home.
Q: Where's home?
Thomas: Poland. Germany.
Q: So you're saying Jews should go back to Poland, and Germany.
Thomas: And America, and everywhere else.
You can see the video here.
Thomas' views on Israel and the Middle East are well known -- she recently sparred with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs over Israel's raid on the flotilla headed towards Gaza -- but she seemed to cross a line with her lastest comments, especially when she said that Jews should go to Poland and Germany ... two places where, if memory serves, Jews haven't fared so well.
An immediate firestorm erupted following the discovery of her remarks. Gibbs himself called them "offensive and reprehensible." Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under President George W. Bush, called for her firing.
Earlier this morning, this statement came from the Board of the White House Correspondents Association:
Helen Thomas' comments were indefensible and the White House Correspondents Association board firmly dissociates itself from them. 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 trail blazer on the White House beat.
While Helen has not been a member of the WHCA for many years, her special status in the briefing room has helped solidify her as the dean of the White House press corps so we feel the need to speak out strongly on this matter.
We want to emphasize that the role of the WHCA is to represent the White House press corps in its dealings with the White House on coverage-related issues. We do not police the speech of our members or colleagues. We are not involved at all in issuing White House credentials, that is the purview of the White House itself.
But the incident does revive the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room. That is an issue under the jurisdiction of this board. We are actively seeking input from our association members on this important matter, and we have scheduled a special meeting of the WHCA board on Thursday to decide on the seating issue.
That last paragraph deals with another matter but one worth exploring as well. And that is, should an opinion columnist hold a front row seat at a White House briefing along with reporters who cover the administration? Thomas is legendary, and it's hard imagining a press briefing without her. But there is a clear difference between a reporter and an opinion columnist.
Her retirement ends that debate, for now.
For her part, Thomas offered an apology on Friday on her website:
I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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.