Google “good riddance to Helen Thomas,” and you get 41,700 results, more than enough to get the gist of the blogosphere’s general disdain for the 89-year-old doyenne who was a fixture in the White House press room going back to the Kennedy administration. Much of the commentary reflects revulsion at Thomas’s characterization of the Palestinian issue as something that could be solved if Jews left the Palestine territories and went back to where they came from.
She was talking about the settlers, and if she had said they should go back to Brooklyn, where many of them are from, she probably wouldn’t have made news. But suggesting they return to Germany and Poland touched a nerve that led to an abrupt ending of Thomas’s storied career. She apologized, saying “I made a mistake.” But there was no forgiveness. Indeed, Jonathan Chait of The New Republic used Thomas’s downfall to recycle a piece he’d written in 2006, titled “A Hack Rises.”
In it, he recounted her transformation from a wire-service stenographer to liberal journalistic icon, thanks to her longevity and her willingness to challenge a president (George W. Bush) when others were beating the drums for war. But Chait was not impressed. He said Thomas never broke news, and he challenged readers to remember a single article she had written. He said her antagonistic questions to President Bush are “as wildly inappropriate for the forum of a press conference as they are ineffective,” endearing herself to the left even as she aided the conservative cause.
Chait is right up to a point, but then why pick on Thomas? White House reporters rarely break news (Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame were metro reporters). Sure, Bush used Thomas as a foil, calling on her knowing that her antiwar rant would likely backfire. Still, it was refreshing to see someone totally unimpressed by the grandeur of the office needle Bush like she would any third-rate politician.
Woody Allen famously said 90 percent of life is just showing up, and Thomas was there for a huge chunk of history. She is a role model, and a friend, and as she is being pilloried for voicing an unpopular opinion. I remember when she first moved from UPI to become an opinion columnist, and how she struggled with the transition. After 40 years of reporting only the facts, her editor would bounce her column back to her, saying, “This is not a column, this is a story.”
Thomas will be 90 years old on Aug. 4. She was born the year that women got the vote, and as the recipient of the Helen Thomas Award for excellence in journalism, bestowed on me last week by the American News Women’s Club, the night before all hell broke loose over Thomas’s ill-conceived comments, I would only ask that she not be judged by the last thing she said but by the pioneering career that went before. At the award dinner at the National Press Club, with everyone lauding her, she quipped, “I’ll have to adjust my halo.” Now the halo is off and replaced by a YouTube video that even her biggest admirers could not justify or excuse.
Thomas has always been outspoken on the Palestinian issue, phrasing questions in such a way that sometimes made eyes roll in the press room. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants who settled in Detroit, she felt she brought a perspective that people needed to hear. She crossed the line in her off-the-cuff remarks on the South Lawn of the White House to Rabbi David Nesenoff who was there with his teenage son for an event marking Jewish Heritage Month. Ironically, Thomas spent most of the short interview extolling the joys of journalism for Nesenoff’s son, seemingly unaware of the incendiary nature of her words.
It may be a function of age, or the entitlement that accompanies advancing years, but Thomas has no filter anymore between what she thinks and what she says. “The first 90 years are the hardest,” she quipped as she spoke at a recent event commemorating the suffragists who were jailed during the Wilson administration. We all know people who say they’ve reached an age where they ought to be able to say what they think. She was furious at Bush’s war policies and, at a book signing when she didn’t know she was being quoted, called him the worst president she’d covered, and that means all the presidents since the Eisenhower administration. That remark didn’t cause much of a flap because lots of people agreed with her. But she doesn’t cut Democrats any slack and is equally furious at President Obama for escalating the war in Afghanistan. In fact, a long line of White House press secretaries found her difficult to deal with. She’s made a lot of enemies over the years, and when she stepped on the third rail of Israeli-Palestinian politics, she had to go, and it was time. She had always rebuffed calls to retire, saying nobody ever asked Pablo Casals, the famed cellist, when he would retire. But then, Casals performed flawlessly until just before his 95th birthday. Thomas made it to almost 90, a record that few are likely to equal, and in the competitive media industry, that took more than just showing up.
Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment