First, let's get this out of the way: Helen Thomas' videotaped remarks cannot be condoned or excused. Even in this Internet-fueled Age of Vituperation, what she said was appalling. Send Jews "back" to Germany? Good Lord. Nearly every German Jew was exterminated by the Nazis. Return Jews to Poland? This is reminiscent of racists' calls from earlier generations to send blacks back to Africa – except it's worse because Auschwitz, Belzec, and Treblinka are the places in Poland seared into Jewish memory. These are the place names of the Holocaust.
While I'm dispensing history lessons, the Jewish people occupied the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. The word "Jew" itself comes from the name Judea. Jews are the people from Judea, which is why, after Germans slaughtered them, world Jewry embraced a return to the land of the ancient Israelites – that place between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Were modern Arab people living there at the time? Yes, and that is what the fighting is about. Three successive U.S. presidents – men Helen Thomas covered -- have called for a "two-state" solution, the most obvious, logical, and humane answer. Helen Thomas seemed to be calling for something else entirely.
And so, the reaction against her quickly built up tremendous steam, culminating in the brief announcement around noon Monday by her employer, Hearst Newspapers, that she was retiring immediately. The terse notice posted on the company website barely bothered to pretend that this decision was voluntary – and so ended, on a sad note, one of the longest-running individual chapters in American journalism. Her fall from grace raises several important issues about journalism – and about American society beyond journalism.
Let's start with the age issue: Helen Thomas is 89 years old. Is the aging process itself a rationale for what she said? Hearst Newspapers' brass implied that it was. In their announcement, they noted, gratuitously it seemed at first blush, that she will turn 90 on August 4. Does this explain her comments, which besides being offensive were pretty odd? That's a difficult question. One of the common symptoms of aging is a loss of cognitive ability that occurs so gradually as to be nearly imperceptible – until some elderly person blurts out something socially inappropriate.
That fits the bill for Helen, at least regarding her May 27 outburst on Israel, but there are two things to be said about that. First, human beings don't age at the same pace. Richard Neustadt, the great presidential scholar and political scientist whom Helen covered on occasion, was 84 when he died earlier this decade – and was sharp, insightful, and verbally dexterous until the very end.
It's no easy matter to discern when an actor should leave the stage, either, let alone to know when to force a person into retirement. History is full of examples of performers, in and out of politics, who overstayed their welcomes, and in doing so tarnished their legacies. Baseball lovers still wince when they recall the incandescent centerfielder Willie Mays circling uncertainly under fly balls in Shea Stadium in his 40s. Yet 47-year-old Phillies pitcher Jaime Moyer, a far lesser talent, won his sixth game of the 2010 season with a complete game gem on Saturday, just as the long knives were being sharpened for Helen Thomas' scalp.
In politics, California Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston discussed openly the possibility of human beings living until they were 150; he told me once he hoped to do it himself. The more banal truth is that Cranston, who died ten years ago at age 86, should have retired from public life after three terms in the Senate. At age 72, however, he sought a fourth term – and won, it too -- but his difficulty raising money had led him to the door of Charles Keating. And when Cranston died in 2000, the obituaries had the phrase "Keating Five" in the first paragraph.
Strom Thurmond overstayed his welcome. So, too, at least in the minds of top Republican Party officials in Kentucky, did major league baseball player-turned politician Jim Bunning. But nudging Bunning off the stage, as Sen. Mitch McConnell did, sparked a backlash that resulted in the current Senate candidacy of Rand Paul. Let's ask McConnell in November how he thinks that turned out. And who was it, exactly, who was supposed to tell Helen Thomas to hang it up -- especially when she owed her very place in history to her perseverance and longevity?
The second aspect of Helen's own situation is that her feelings about Israel were no secret. An American of Lebanese descent, she was outspoken and one-sided on the politics of the Middle East long before she became a celebrity, or even a columnist. I covered the White House beat for 15 years myself, and was among those who found her bias disconcerting. Yet, I referred to her as "Helen," just now. Why? Because that's what most of her colleagues did, and not because of her gender. They did it because she had earned a place in White House history, and in our hearts. And this was true even for those who disliked Helen's politics, even for those who thought she had no business with a permanent place of honor in the front row of the White House briefing room, even for those who didn't admire her as a writer or a thinker, and even for those who were nonplussed by her late-in-life fame and acclaim.
So how did Helen Thomas attain the status of a one-named Brazilian soccer star? The short answer is that she knocked down doors, literally, in a profession where that talent is respected and rewarded. She was the first female member and first president of the National Press Club, which was all-white until 1955, and all-male until 1971. She was the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She was the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, a group that was pressured Monday to rescind her White House credentials, a function in which it actually plays no role.
The correspondents' association board issued a statement early Tuesday morning distancing itself from Helen Thomas' "indefensible" comments, but adding that it does not police the content of its members' public statements. The WHCA board did say it planned to revisit the issue of whether an opinion columnist should have a front-row seat in the White House briefing room.
Later, after the Hearst retirement announcement, the board issued a more conciliatory, (if ungrammatical) statement: "Helen Thomas has had a long and distinguished career in journalism that is unrivaled, covering 10 presidents over the past 50 years," it said. "Along the way, she shattered many glass ceilings 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."
Helen also fought to knock down the wooden doors, both symbolic and literal, that successive administrations used to keep the press at bay – and she did so on behalf of all journalists, male and female, from prestigious news organizations -- or those with only one member. She inspired two generations of female scribes to cover politics and the White House, and invariably was kind and accommodating to new reporters on the beat, myself included. Martha Joynt Kumar, the presidential scholar who knows more about White House communications than the next three experts combined, put it this way: "Helen's comments were indefensible, yes, but her life is very defensible."
Helen Thomas came to the White House when JFK did, in January 1961. She was not the first woman on the beat – female reporters had been hanging around the White House since the 1800s – and she wasn't even the only one there when she arrived. Sarah McClendon, the loud-voiced self-described "citizen journalist" from Texas remembered for her shouted queries at White House press conferences, was already a fixture when Helen came on the scene.
(McClendon was determined not to retire, either, and when she died in the saddle, so to speak, seven years ago at age 92, Helen called her "one of the greatest newspaperwomen Washington ever saw," and laughingly recalled her own recollection of Sarah getting President Eisenhower so angry his veins would stick out. "She had guts, she asked the questions that should have been asked, and she asked questions for people who had no voice," Helen Thomas said of Sarah McClendon, but clearly talking about herself as well.)
Helen somehow pulled off being respectful of the presidency, but not necessarily the politicians who actually held the office. She institutionalized the ending of presidential press conferences with, "Thank you, Mr. President." Yet she also was the most vocal leader of the press when President Clinton tried to close off the upper White House office. This was a battle Helen won, but the real winner was the American people.
In her unabashed pro-press defiance, Helen harked back to a woman named Emily Briggs, arguably the first female White House correspondent, who wrote from Washington in the 1870s for the old Philadelphia Free Press under the name "Olivia." Emily Briggs, in the words of Martha Kumar, "regarded the White House as public property and what went on within its walls as public business." In a statement that sounds like something from one of Helen's books, Emily Briggs once wrote, "When we go to the Executive Mansion, we go to our own house."
It was in front of that house on May 27, 2010 that Helen Thomas looked into the handheld camera of Rabbi David F. Nesenoff – on the occasion of a White House Jewish heritage celebration, no less – and made her fateful comments about Israelis. Some of Helen's defenders have sought to make Nesenoff's behavior the issue, but that isn't fair.
Asked for a comment on Israel, Helen blurts out her "get the hell out of Palestine" comment. "Oh," Nesenhoff replies, clearly taken aback. "Any better comment?"
It was then that Helen Thomas went off on her rant about returning Israelis to nations most of them have never even visited, and wouldn't want to. The reaction, once this story got out, was swift and unmerciful. She was dropped by her speaker's bureau and her co-author, denounced from the podium in the West Wing briefing room by the White House press secretary, and criticized by the political left, right, and center.
Lanny Davis, a former special counsel and White House spokesman in the Clinton administration, joined George W. Bush-era press secretary Ari Fleischer in calling upon Hearst Newspapers to fire or suspend her. It was Davis and Fleischer who also called on the White House Correspondents' Association to take a stand. "If she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa, what would the White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials -- much less a privileged honorary seat?" Davis said. Added Fleischer: "If a journalist, or a columnist, said the same thing about blacks or Hispanics, they would already have lost their jobs."
Any chance Helen Thomas had to salvage the situation was lost when she issued an apology on her website that didn't convey an understanding on her part of just how far over the line she had gone. And in some ways, this was more than an isolated incident. After she left UPI and went to Hearst, Helen became an opinion columnist, a role she took to a bit too naturally, whether venting in her increasingly strident column, asking questions at the White House briefings, or giving outside interviews.
"This is the worst president ever," she told a reporter for the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January 2003 in discussing George W. Bush. "He is the worst president in all of American history." She routinely referred in print to the Iraq invasion as Bush's "crusade," and once asked Ari Fleischer the following question: "Will you state for the record, for the historical record, why (George W. Bush) wants to bomb Iraqi people?"
In this sense, despite her age, Helen wasn't a journalistic dinosaur; she was on the cutting edge. But that is a sharp place to be. Just as Sarah McClendon was a self-described "citizen journalist" five decades before Arianna Huffington re-popularized that phrase, Helen was ahead of herself as well. As journalists, we're all supposed to be social networking these days, getting ourselves on television, writing blogs as well as books, saying provocative – even partisan -- things. That's the new model, supposedly. Well, Helen Thomas was a one-woman social network even before it was cool, and in the end was devoured by this edgy new system that helped make her a star.
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