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Helen Thomas Retirement Leaves 'Significant' Void: Anti-War Voices Fret

Helen Thomas

First Posted: 06/07/10 05:22 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:40 PM ET

The abrupt retirement of Helen Thomas from her perch as the ranking member of the White House press corps was essentially accepted as a fait accompli by supporters and detractors alike after her controversial remarks urging Jews to leave Israel surfaced.

Indeed, if there was any defense made of Thomas's comments, it wasn't done persuasively or at an influential level. But that didn't stop the progressive community -- many hearing about her retirement while at the Campaign for America's Future conference in D.C. -- from collectively fretting on Monday about what the loss of her voice bodes for the day-to-day interaction between the White House and the Fourth Estate.

Her absence will be felt "significantly," said Ilyse Hogue, Communications Director of Moveon.org. "There's no excuse for Helen Thomas' statements. But the burden will now fall on the rest of the press corps to make sure the administration feels the need to be transparent about its plans to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Even though the anger toward her and her retirement are entirely appropriate, the absence of her raw questions about the war(s) will be felt by the anti-war movement, and everyone else," said Peter Daou, an influential online voice, formerly of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. "The chummy atmosphere between the White House press corps and the past two administrations (a case in point was the giddy response to Gibbs joining Twitter) hasn't been conducive to the kind of blunt questions she was willing to ask."

"Congress and the executive branch, who are both pushing a deficit commission, seem to have no problem sweeping this under the rug, no matter how much it costs us in terms of money and lives lost," said Chris Bowers, an influential blogger for the site OpenLeft. "Helen at least kept asking those questions."

"Regardless of that comment she made that was so controversial in the last few days, on the war she has been the only person asking the really hard questions of this administration and the prior administration," said Darcy Burner a progressive political stalwart and two-time congressional candidate.

A persistent questioner about the U.S.'s mission and the efficacy of that mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas's departure does create a void of sorts within the James Brady Briefing Room.

It was her intense skepticism of the dual wars (and her subsequent marginalization by the Bush administration) that helped make her an iconic figure in the progressive, anti-war community, which felt reporters had abdicated their responsibilities in the early 2000s. The proper order seemed momentarily restored during the early months of the Obama White House, when Thomas once again was granted a quasi-special status to ask questions at the Daily Briefing and presidential press conferences. She had initially earned the seat at the front of the briefing room while working as a reporter for United Press International. When the news organization faded away and she took different jobs (most recently as a columnist for Hearst), the perch remained hers. Fellow White House reporters rationalized it as the sensible honor to bestow upon someone who had covered the beat for five decades. Last spring, on her 89th birthday, President Obama serenaded her and brought her cupcakes.

"Helen Thomas has had a long and distinguished career in journalism that is unrivaled, covering 10 presidents over the past 50 years," the White House Correspondents Association said after her retirement. "Along the way, she shattered many glass ceilings, including serving as the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association. We are saddened by her recent comments, but we commend her for a trailblazing career, and we wish her the best."

Thomas quickly soured on Obama's foreign policy prescriptions -- deeming them a continuation of the Bush doctrine. It was certainly well within her purview as a columnist to make such a judgment. But her style of pressing the administration was not without its detractors. Within the press corps, there was a sense that while her focus on Iraq and Afghanistan was noble, her reportorial tact lacked much of a punch. So predictable were the questions she asked that fellow reporters would practically ad-lib Robert Gibbs's answers. Grumbling had started well before her firing that the purpose of sitting her in the front row (a prime piece of real estate in the media world) no longer seemed so evident.

But even a dull spotlight was better than no spotlight at all, her defenders insisted. And in the wake of her retirement, there is unabashed concern that Iraq and Afghanistan -- already removed from the public's consciousness -- will fall even further from view.

"When I was working at Microsoft, I got to talk to some of the people who managed the front page of MSN," said Burner. "And they would set what was on the front page based on what people clicked on, which is why Paris Hilton was always on the front page. I think in general those of us who care about the wars haven't done a good job making them directly relevant to people who don't have family members in the military."

This piece was updated slightly from its original version with a more accurate quote from Ilyse Hogue

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