WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas resigned Tuesday from United Press International, ending a UPI tenure that spanned six decades â€” longer than the lives of President Clinton and most of her press corps colleagues.
The 79-year-old Thomas announced her resignation a day after UPI was sold to News World Communications Inc., the parent firm of The Washington Times. News World Communications was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church.
Thomas did not say why she quit UPI, which hired her as a $24-a-week radio script writer during World War II.
``I have no plans to join the new UPI,'' she said in a statement.
``The nearly century-old United Press International is a great news agency and has made a remarkable contribution to the legacy of American journalism,'' she said. ``I have loved working for this organization for 57 years in Washington, and especially loved covering the White House. I wish the new management well and hope they will continue the tradition in the future that this wire service has represented.''
``She has outrun the best of them â€” because she is the best of them,'' said UPI Chief Executive Officer Arnaud de Borchgrave.
Through the day, White House press corps colleagues wandered over to UPI's corner booth in search of her, only to see her empty desk, and its phone ringing unanswered. Thomas was in Indiana promoting her memoirs, ``Front Row at the White House.''
The news made its way into the Oval Office.
``Presidents come and go, but Helen's been here,'' Clinton told reporters. ``I'll feel a little better about my country if I know she'll still be spending some time around here at the White House. After all, without her saying, 'Thank you, Mr. President,' at least some of us might never have ended our news conferences.''
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, who was barely a year old when Thomas joined the White House beat, said her departure leaves a void.
``We certainly hope she will find a way ... (to) bug me like she's done since the day I took this job,'' Lockhart said.
De Borchgrave initially said Thomas would remain with UPI. Diane Nine, Thomas' agent, said Thomas ``felt he misunderstood'' her intentions.
``She's resigned from UPI. She does not plan on retiring,'' Nine said. ``She is exploring a number of opportunities that are out there. She hopes to be at the White House in the role of a reporter.''
Thomas has been a White House fixture since the Kennedy administration, covering eight presidents. She is known for her terse, tough questioning of presidents and press secretaries alike.
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she was born in Lexington, Ky., in 1920.
United Press hired her in 1943 to write for the local radio wire and edit city newswire copy. In 1956, Thomas was promoted to covering the Justice Department.
In 1960, she was sent to cover John F. Kennedy's postelection family vacation in Palm Beach, Fla., and went on to cover first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She was named UPI's chief White House correspondent in 1970, the first woman to hold the job.
She later became the first woman president of the Gridiron Club, a once all-male journalistic group established in 1885, and of the White House Correspondents Association.
Thomas portrayed herself in the film ``The American President,'' and made a cameo appearance in Clinton's recent video spoof of his lame duck days.
In that video, Thomas was the lone reporter in the abandoned White House briefing room, snoozing in the front row as Clinton spoke.
When Clinton called for questions, Thomas snapped awake and quipped: ``Are you still here?''