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Helen Thomas: From Pioneer to White House Irritant

Helen Thomas
Helen Thomas CBS/ AP

The first time I ever rode in a presidential motorcade, I sat behind Helen Thomas in the back seat of the vehicle designated "WIRE 2."

It was 1976, and President Gerald Ford was in San Francisco on his way to the Palace of Fine Arts Theater for a camera and mike check a few hours before the second presidential debate of the campaign.

As lead reporter for United Press International, Thomas occupied the front passenger seat of that car by right and tradition. Her competition from the Associated Press, Frank Cormier, had his own car phone in the front seat of "WIRE 1."

Those were the days before cell phones, but each of the press vehicles in the presidential motorcade had old-style car phones. I watched with fascination as she dialed up her office and gave one of the editors on her news desk a play-by-play of the motorcade route.

It was protective coverage to insure there would be no delay in reporting any incident involving the president, as happened in that motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

"We're here. Call you back, "Thomas shouted into the phone as the motorcade pulled up to the debate site. Thomas virtually flew out of the car to get as close to the president as she could.

She was a pioneer as a woman covering the White House and had much to teach young reporters like myself.

But in her later years, after leaving the hard news environment of UPI and becoming a columnist for Hearst, Thomas made no pretense at objective reporting. Her questions at White House briefings and press conferences often reflected her political opinions and agenda - much to the irritation of the press secretaries and even presidents she covered.

Helen Thomas

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Thomas made no effort to conceal her views that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were wrong-headed policies. Her questions also conveyed her view that U.S. support for and alliance with Israel was ill-conceived.

As UPI's lead reporter, Thomas was entitled to ask the first or second question at every presidential news conference. As a columnist, Thomas lost that privilege and during the presidency of George W. Bush, he rarely called on her.

She was deemed by the Bush White House to be unabashedly biased against Mr. Bush and his policies and it was felt her questions reflected that. Occasionally, White House officials would publicly tell Thomas she was out of line.

During a heated exchange on November 30, 2007, White House press secretary Dana Perino got decidedly fed up with Thomas when one of her questions suggested the president was oblivious to the deaths of innocent people in Iraq.

"Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements," scolded Perino.

She told Thomas that "to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive."

But Thomas, then 86-years old, didn't back down:

THOMAS: Do you know how many we have (killed) since the start of this war?

MS. PERINO: How many -- we are going after the enemy, Helen. To the extent that any innocent Iraqis have been killed, we have expressed regret for it.

THOMAS: Oh, regret? It doesn't bring back a life.

MS. PERINO: Helen, we are in a war zone, and our military works extremely hard to make sure that everyone has the opportunity for liberty and freedom and democracy, and that is exactly what they are doing.

That was all Perino was going to take. She cut Thomas off and moved on to another reporter.

In some political circles, Thomas found herself applauded for challenging the president and his policies more bluntly than others in the White House briefing room. She also found herself denounced by those who backed President Bush.

On Mideast issues, Thomas was also not shy about taking a hard-line against Israel and the support it received from the U.S. Her questions reflected a pro-Arab view

It was her statement last week that Israelis should get "the hell out of Palestine" and go "home" to Poland, Germany or the U.S. that triggered a firestorm of condemnations.

The response was so intense it led to Thomas announcing her retirement from journalism.

But knowing Thomas, it's easy to believe the retirement might be short-lived.

Helen Thomas Retires in the Wake of Uproar
A Sad Conclusion to a Great Career by Dean Reynolds
White House: Helen Thomas' Remarks "Offensive and Reprehensible"
Watch White House Spokesman's Response to Thomas
Helen Thomas Under Fire for Remarks on Jews, Israel

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:
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