Helen Thomas is now the 89-year old former dean of the White House press corps, after announcing that she's "retiring" as a Hearst columnist following controversial comments in which she said Israeli Jews should return "home" to Poland and Germany and give the land back to the Palestinians.
According to the Hearst news service, Thomas issued the following statement:
"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."
Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent and is known for the implied criticism of pro-Israel policies of successive U.S. administrations in her questions to U.S. presidents and their press secretaries, made the eyebrow-raising comments at the White House on May 27.
She was responding to questions from Rabbi David Nesenoff. Any comments on Israel? he asked her.
THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.
NESENOFF: Wooo. Any better comments on Israel?
THOMAS: Remember, there people are occupied. And it's their land. It's not German. It's not Poland.
NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?
THOMAS: They can go home.
NESENOFF: Where is their home?
NESENOFF: So you're saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?
THOMAS: And America. And everywhere else.
Asked for an official reaction, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama heaped opprobrium on Thomas' remarks less than a year after he delivered a birthday cupcake to her in the briefing room.
An excerpt from an Associated Press story:
Gibbs called them "offensive and reprehensible... She should and has apologized," Gibbs said. "Because obviously those remarks do not reflect certainly the opinion of most of the people here and certainly not of the administration."
Thomas was the long-time White House correspondent and later Washington bureau chief for United Press International. While she wasn't the first woman to cover a president, she was the first woman to enter the inner circle of Washington's clubby journalism groups — the National Press Club, the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents Association.
Speaking of the WHCA, it issued a statement condemning Thomas' remarks and said the controversy should cause the group to question whether opinion journalists should be assigned front row seats in the White House press briefing room.
The WHCA statement:
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.
Not incidentally, Thomas was scheduled to be the commencement speaker at the suburban Washington Walt Whitman High School but was told to forget about it for obvious reasons.
Meanwhile, the New York Times media blog reported she was dropped Sunday by the speakers bureau that represented her.
All in all, a sad, inauspicious end to a notable journalism career.