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Helen Thomas in February 2009
|Born||Helen Thomas |
August 4, 1920 (1920-08-04)
Winchester, Kentucky, USA
|Occupation||Author, retired journalist and columnist|
|Spouse(s)||Douglas B. Cornell (1971–82)|
|Religious belief(s)||Greek Orthodox|
Thomas, a Lebanese-American, covered every President of the United States from the last years of the Eisenhower administration until the second year of the Obama administration. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She has written five books; her latest, with co-author Craig Crawford, is Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (2009).
Thomas retired on June 7, 2010, following comments she made about Israel, Jews and Palestine.
 Early lifeThomas' parents, George and Mary (née Rowady) Thomas, immigrated to the U.S. from Tripoli, located in northern Lebanon. Her parents could neither read nor write, and Thomas claims her father's surname, which was "Antonious", was anglicized to "Thomas" at Ellis Island. She was born in Winchester, Kentucky, the seventh of nine children but was largely reared in Detroit, Michigan, where her family moved when she was four years old, and where her father ran a grocery store.
Thomas said "I was very lucky to be born in America.... [My family was] never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically." Of growing up in Detroit in the 1920s, she said, "They wanted to make you feel you weren't 'American'... We were called 'garlic eaters'". She was called "foreigner" in Detroit schools, leading to her coming home in tears.
She was raised as a Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church
Thomas attended Wayne University in Detroit, graduating with a bachelor's degree in English in 1942.
 Early careerHer first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, but shortly after she was promoted to cub reporter, she was laid off as part of massive cutbacks at the paper. Thomas joined United Press International in 1943 and reported on women's topics for its radio wire service, earning $24 ($305 in current dollar terms) a week. Later in the decade, and in the early fifties, she wrote UPI's "Names in the News" column, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities. After 1955, she covered federal agencies such as the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Thomas served as president of the Women's National Press Club from 1959–60. In 1959, Thomas and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
 Presidential correspondentPresident-elect John F. Kennedy, following him to the White House in January 1961 as a UPI correspondent. Thomas became known as the "Sitting Buddha." It was during Kennedy's administration that she ended all presidential press conferences with a signature "Thank you, Mr. President", reviving a tradition started by UPI’s Merriman Smith during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.
Throughout her career as a correspondent, Thomas earned a reputation for being relentless and demanding. In an interview with Fidel Castro, USA Today founder Al Neuharth asked the Cuban leader what the difference was between democracy in Cuba and democracy in the United States. Castro replied, "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas."
Thomas was the only female print journalist to travel to China with President Richard Nixon during his historic trip in 1972. (Barbara Walters was a member of the NBC News team that went to the People's Republic of China to cover the visits of President Richard Nixon in 1972.) She traveled around the world several times with all US Presidents since Richard Nixon, and covered every Economic Summit since 1975, working up to the position of UPI's White House Bureau Chief, a post she would hold for over 25 years. While serving as White House Bureau Chief, she authored a regular column for UPI, "Backstairs at the White House", a column begun by Merriman Smith. The column provided an insider's view of various presidential administrations.
Thomas was the only member of the White House Press Corps to have her own seat in the White House Briefing Room. All other seats are assigned to media outlets.
 Departure from UPIOn May 17, 2000, the day after it was announced that the UPI had been acquired by News World Communications Inc., an international media conglomerate founded and controlled by Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon which owns The Washington Times and other news media, Thomas resigned from the UPI after 57 years with the organization. She later described the change in ownership as "a bridge too far". Less than two months later, she joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist, writing on national affairs and the White House.
After leaving her job as a reporter at the UPI, Thomas became more likely to air her personal, negative views. In a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she quipped, "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’"
 George W. Bush administrationDuring President George W. Bush's first term, Thomas reacted to then-Press Secretary Ari Fleisher's statements about arms shipments to the terrorists by asking: "Where do the Israelis get their arms?" He responded "There's a difference Helen, and that is --". "What is the difference?", she asked. He responded: "The targeting of innocents through the use of terror, which is a common enemy for Yasir Arafat and for the people of Israel, as well as --". She interrupted him, saying: "Palestinian people are fighting for their land." He responded: "I think that the killing of innocents is a category entirely different. Justifying killing of innocents for land is an argument in support of terrorism."
In January 2003, following a speech at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet, Thomas told an autograph-seeker, "I'm covering the worst president in American history." The autograph-seeker was a sports writer for The Daily Breeze and her comments were published. After that she was not called upon during a press conference for the first time in over four decades. She wrote to the President to apologize.
Traditionally, Thomas sat in the front row and asked the first question during White House press conferences. However, according to Thomas in a 2006 Daily Show interview, this ended because she no longer represented a wire service. During the Bush administration, Thomas was moved to the back row during press conferences; She was called upon at briefings on a daily basis but no longer ended Presidential news conferences saying, "Thank you, Mr. President." When asked why she was seated in the back row, she said, "they didn’t like me...I ask too mean questions."
War in Iraq:
I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet...your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth...what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil...quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?Bush responded by discussing the War on Terror, and stated as a reason for the invasion that Saddam Hussein chose to deny inspectors and not to disclose required information. Thomas was criticized by some commentators for her exchange with Bush.
In July 2006, she told The Hill, "The day Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I'll kill myself. All we need is another liar... I think he'd like to run, but it would be a sad day for the country if he does."
At the July 18, 2006, White House press briefing, Thomas remarked, "The United States ... could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon. We have that much control with the Israelis... we have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Press Secretary Tony Snow responded, "Thank you for the Hezbollah view." Other members of the press weighed in. According to Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, questions like the one above have sounded more like "tirades" and "anti-Israeli rhetoric." However, Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher described Shales' attack as "disturbing".
In a press conference on November 30, 2007, Thomas questioned White House Press Secretary Dana Perino as to why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to re-deploy U.S troops from Iraq. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected with "You mean how many more people we kill?" Perino immediately took offense, responding,
Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is a...it is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.
 Obama administrationObama's first news conference. President Obama called on her with the statement "Helen. I'm excited, this is my inaugural moment", seemingly a reference to her long-term presence in the White House Press Corps. Thomas asked if any Middle Eastern country possessed nuclear weapons. Obama replied that he didn't want to "speculate" on the matter.
On July 1, 2009, Thomas commented on the Obama administration's handling of the press, "we have had some control but not this control. I mean I'm amazed, I'm amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency and you have controlled...". She also said that not even Richard Nixon tried to control the press as much as President Obama.
On August 4, 2009, Thomas celebrated her 89th birthday. President Obama, whose birthday is also August 4, presented Thomas with birthday cupcakes and sang Happy Birthday to her before that day's press conference.
 Controversy and resignation
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 Comments on Israel and JewsThomas retired abruptly on June 7, 2010, following negative reaction to comments she had made about Israel, Jews, and Palestine during a brief interview with Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com. Nesenoff was on the White House grounds for an American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day, and he questioned Thomas as she was leaving the White House via the North Lawn driveway:
A one-minute excerpt of the May 27, 2010 interview was posted on Rabbi Nesenoff's site on June 3, 2010. On June 4, Thomas issued an apology on her personal web site:Nesenoff: Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today, any comments on Israel? Thomas: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.
Nesenoff: Ooh. Any better comments on Israel?
Thomas: Hahaha. Remember, these 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's the home?
Thomas: Poland, Germany...
Nesenoff: So you're saying the Jews go back to Poland and Germany?
Thomas: And America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?
Nesenoff: Are you familiar with the history of that region?
Thomas: Very much. I'm of Arab background.
Nesenoff: I see. Do you speak Arabic?
Thomas: Very little. We were too busy Americanizing our parents... All the best to you.—May 27, 2010, RabbiLive.com 
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.However, in October 2010, while being interviewed by Scott Spears of Ohio radio station WMRN-AM, Thomas stated that while her comments had touched a nerve, they were "exactly what I thought." She said she realized soon afterward she would be fired, stating, "I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive." Thomas added that she issued an apology because people were upset, but that ultimately she "had the same feelings about Israel's aggression and brutality."
Again on December 2, 2010, shortly before a speech, Thomas told reporters that the comments she made to Nesenoff were "the truth", "I stand by it, I told the truth". Then referring that it led to the end of her decades-long career in journalism, she said "I paid a price, but it's worth it to speak the truth", adding "the truth is always a casualty in disputes like that". In her speech (see below), Thomas told about how she was jokingly referred to as "Hezbollah," "Hamas" and a "terrorist" by White House press officials. She said she didn't protest the comments because "I know who I am".
 Reactions and repercussionsThomas's agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., dropped her as a client because of her remarks. Craig Crawford, who co-authored Listen up, Mr. President, said "I ... will no longer be working with Helen on our book projects.” Her scheduled delivery of a commencement speech at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was canceled by the school. The White House Correspondents' Association, over which she once presided, issued a statement calling her remarks "indefensible". On June 7, Thomas abruptly tendered her resignation from Hearst Newspapers.
Paul Jay, CEO and Senior Editor of The Real News Network, suggested that the acrimonious reactions related to the previous instances on which Helen Thomas had questioned American support for Israel; Thomas had previously asked President Obama about Israel's "secret" nuclear weapons, and why the White House did not condemn the Israeli attacks on the aid flotilla. Others saw it as recrimination for past questioning of "Zionist" tactics within America.
On June 8, in an interview on NBC's Today Show, President Obama called her remarks "offensive" and "out of line", and said her retirement was "the right decision". He remarked that it was a "shame" her celebrated career had to end in such controversy, and at the same time he recognized her long service covering U.S. presidents, calling her "a real institution in Washington." Her comments also garnered rebukes from numerous others, including White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, former special counsel to and White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson.
Helen Thomas' alma mater, Wayne State University strongly condemned what it called her "wholly inappropriate comments."
Thomas' defenders either supported her comments or tried to put them into what they felt was a proper context. These arguments included the belief that she was completely correct and should not have felt any repercussions (Hezbollah called Thomas' comments "courageous, bold, honest and free opinion," while Hamas said she had "told the truth."), that Thomas was only referring to the West Bank when she talked about Israelis getting the hell out of "Palestine", or that her comments could not be explained away but should not erase what she had achieved in her memorable career, such as Sam Donaldson, another former White House correspondent who did not agree with what Thomas said. Donaldson, however, praised Thomas' achievements as an early woman journalist, and said her comments likely reflected the view of many people of Arab descent).
After Thomas' resignation, her coveted front row center seat in the White House Briefing Room was awarded to the Associated Press (AP), while Fox News moved from the second row into the AP's former front row position.
In August 2010, a group of Holocaust survivors and relatives criticized the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan for its plans to place a statue of Helen Thomas in its museum, saying that it would be immoral to honor her and that "American values are at stake."
The president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Kevin Smith, said in June that Thomas's comments were "offensive" and "inexcusable." The society was later asked why it decided to continue the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement after Thomas's comments. Smith's successor as the society's president, Hagit Limor replied in December: "We discussed the issue at our exec board meeting in July 2010. The majority believed this to be a one-time slip that didn't change Ms. Thomas's lifetime of service, which is what we were honoring."  However, on January 14, 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement; stating that it staunchly defends the right to free speech, but that "the controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists". "...No individual worthy of such honor should have to face this controversy. No honoree should have to decide if the possible backlash is worth being recognized for his or her contribution to journalism." "SPJ will simply not give a lifetime achievement award (anymore)" said Scott Leadingham, spokesman for SPJ.
 December 2010 speech controversyOn December 2, 2010, in a speech for the eighth annual "Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans" conference at the Byblos Banquet Center on Chase, Thomas said: "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion." Thomas defended her comments on December 7, telling Scott Spears of Marion, Ohio AM radio station WMRN, "I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country." 
The next day, the Anti-Defamation League called for journalism schools and organizations to rescind any honors given to Thomas. The organization said that Thomas had "clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite" in the speech. Hours later, Wayne State University in Detroit discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award, which it had been granting for more than ten years, citing what it called her antisemitic remarks. The school issued a statement saying: "As a public university, Wayne State encourages free speech and open dialogue, and respects diverse viewpoints. However, the university strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas...". Speaking for the school, Matthew Seeger said: "The controversy has brought a negative light to the award, which was never the intent of the award." Thomas herself reacted with scolding remarks saying that "the leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press." She also stated that "the university also has betrayed academic freedom—a sad day for its students." The university's Arab American Student Union held a protest on campus December 10. In a news release the Palestine Cultural Office of Michigan made a call for concerned individuals to contact the university. Also, members of the Congress of Arab American Organizations held a meeting with university officials on December 7 in an attempt to make them repeal their decision. In a later response the university said it would not reverse its position. Asked by The Detroit Free Press how she'd respond to people who say she's anti-Semitic, Thomas responded: 'I'd say I'm a Semite. What are you talking about?'" referring to the fact that her parents were Arab. However while the term's etymology might suggest that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic peoples, the term was coined in the late 19th century in Germany as a more scientific-sounding term for Judenhass ("Jew-hatred"), and that has been its normal use since then.
 AwardsThomas has received numerous awards and more than 30 honorary degrees. In 1976, Thomas was named one of the World Almanac's 25 Most Influential Women in America.
In 1986 she received the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas. Thomas received an Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Freedom Forum in 1991. The White House Correspondent's Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, her alma mater, Wayne State University, established an award for journalists in her honor, the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award; but in December 2010, the award was discontinued by Wayne State citing her renewed remarks that she stands by what she had said earlier in May to Nesenoff. Speaking for Wayne State, Matthew Seeger, its interim dean said, that the award is given to promote the importance of diversity in the media; but this award “is no longer helping us achieve our goals”. In 2007, Thomas received a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & Families.
In October 2010, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) honored Thomas with a lifetime achievement award.
- Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do. (with co-author Craig Crawford) (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2009) ISBN 1-4391-4815-5
- The Great White House Breakout. (with co-author and illustrator Chip Bok) (Penguin Group, 2008) ISBN 9780803733008 (children's book)
- Watchdogs of Democracy? : The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006) ISBN 0-7432-6781-8
- Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003) ISBN 0-7432-0226-0
- Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times (Scribner, 2000) ISBN 0-684-86809-1
- Dateline: White House (Macmillan, 1975) ISBN 0-02-617620-3