WASHINGTON - IFTIKHAR ALI  -   Helen Thomas, a pioneering female American journalist who questioned 10 U.S. presidents from her front-row seat at White House press conferences, has died. She was 92.

As White House correspondent for United Press International (UPI), where she worked for almost 60 years, then as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. Ms. Thomas, known for courageous questions, covered presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama as they confronted the Cuban Missile Crisis, wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the Watergate scandal, oil shortages, the nuclear arms race and economic crises.

Ms Thomas, who was of Lebanese descent, became the first woman elected president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first female to join the Gridiron Club, a fraternity for Washington-based journalists.

Untimidated by presidents or press secretaries, Ms Thomas was known as the dean of the White House press corps for her longevity in the beat. In 2000, she quit UPI and became a columnist for Hearst News Service, a job from which was forced out in 2010 after she told a rabbi that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

She apologized for her remarks, but, obviously acting under the pressure of the powerful Jewish lobby, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced her comments as “offensive and reprehensible.” The White House Correspondents Association issued a rare admonishment, calling them “indefensible.”

In September 1973 when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto paid a state visit to the United States, Helen Thomas had an interaction with the Pakistani leader after he emerged from his talks with President Richard Nixon. She asked him to comment on the Watergate scandal which had just surfaced. Bhutto hesitated for a comment — apparently not wanting to offend his host or to get involved in a domestic issue, but then said, “I don’t know anything about Watergate ... but I do know about water-logging.” Not able to comprehend his answer, Ms. Thomas asked, “What’s water-logging.” This probably was just the opening Bhutto was looking for as he explained in some detail how water-logging and salinity were eating away the fertile lands in the Punjab province, with Pakistan losing almost an-acre—a-minute and  causing steep fall in food production. “And ever since I started talking about water-logging, we have already lost a couple of acres,” Bhutto said in an effort to dramatise the situation. This was obviously not the answer Ms. Thomas looking for but it did appear to make some impact on her. (I have reproduced these quotes from my memory as I couldn’t find the transcript on the internet.)

Water logging and salinity was an important issue in Pakistan in the 60’s and 70’s, and, apart from seeking new U.S. arms to rebuild Pakistan’s battered armed forces, it was also on the agenda of Bhutto’s talks with American leadership.

On Saturday, Thomas’s colleagues expressed sadness and shared memories of the veteran reporter on Twitter. “Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed: woman pioneer journalist broke barriers died today would have been 93 next months RIP,” Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent wrote.

Thomas was born in Winchester, Kentucky in 1920, one of nine children, and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She wrote three books over the course of her career: “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times” (1999); “Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House” (2002); and “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public” (2006).

Her disdain for White House secrecy and dodging spanned five decades, back to President John Kennedy. Her freedom to voice her peppery opinions as a speaker and a Hearst columnist came late in her career. The Bush administration marginalized her, clearly peeved with a journalist who had challenged President George W. Bush to his face on the Iraq war and declared him the worst president in history.

Thomas was accustomed to getting under the skin of presidents, if not to the cold shoulder.

“If you want to be loved,” she said years earlier, “go into something else.”

There was a lighter mood in August 2009, on her 89th birthday, when President Barack Obama popped into in the White House briefing room unannounced. He led the roomful of reporters in singing “Happy Birthday to You” and gave her cupcakes. As it happened, it was the president’s birthday too, his 48th.