Legendary and pioneering White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who covered 10 presidents, died at her apartment in Washington on Saturday. Thomas had been battling a long illness and had returned from the hospital Thursday, a friend tells the Associated Press. Thomas began her career covering the White House for United Press International when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, and was never shy about grilling presidents until she retired in 2010. Thomas was the first woman to join the White House Correspondents’ Association and also the first woman to serve as the group’s president, notes Politico.
Thomas, known as the dean of the White House press corps because she was the longest-serving journalist there, was famous for her grilling. “She was persistent to the point of badgering,” points out the AP. Thomas was a self-described liberal who did not hide her feelings at any point, and would often publicly express her hostility toward Israel. In 2003, Jack Shafer wrote in Slate about “the snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions at White House briefings,” adding that she was “no longer the Helen Thomas of yesteryear.”
Although her vocal opinions sometimes made her colleagues uncomfortable—Thomas “helps make the press corps look like a Saturday Night Live skit," Shafer wrote—she had a legendary work ethic. “She’s always the first one in the White House and the last one to leave,” a fellow correspondent said, according to Bloomberg.
Her prestigious and trailblazing career ended in controversy though when she was recorded making comments about Israel and the Jewish people in May 2010. In the video, Thomas says Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return “home” to “Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.” (Watch here.) Thomas apologized, saying her remarks “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,” recalls CNN. Still, she retired a week later. In 2012, Palestinian officials gave Thomas an award.
Asked about her job, Thomas once famously said: “I've never covered the president in any way other than that he is ultimately responsible.”