Tuesday, June 8, 2010

HELEN THOMAS: The Rest of the Story

During the JFK years in Washington, there was a network television correspondent named Nancy Dickerson. Understand, very few women were taken seriously as journalists at the time, making Dickerson a true pioneer. Even before Dickerson, there was Sarah McClendon, who covered Washington politics for half a century. Regretfully, both are gone now. But only one woman has covered the White House through 10 presidential administrations, beginning with Eisenhower. That would be Helen Thomas, 89, who with the utterance of one ill-conceived sentence last week unceremoniously killed her career. Watch:

Reaction worldwide was swift and brutal. At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs called her statement "reprehensible." Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, "“She should lose her job over this. As someone who is Jewish, and as someone who worked with her and used to like her, I find this appalling.” And it gets worse: President Obama called her comments "offensive," and "out of line."

Well, here's the thing: I'm also someone who is Jewish, and I have mixed feelings about Thomas losing her job, which she quickly did after the uproar became too deafening for Hearst Corporation to keep her on. A student of mine asked me, "As a Jewish man, how do you feel about what she said?" I told her I thought the comments were stupid, but somehow I can't condemn a 60-year career for one statement.

There are those out there who will question my judgment on this, but consider that long career. Thomas is and has always been known for asking the tough questions when no one else would. Watch this encounter with George Bush, who she deemed the worst President in the history of the U.S. Her comments caused her to lose her coveted front row center seat at press conferences and to struggle to ever get called on again:

Thomas was a White House correspondent for 57 years and later Washington bureau chief for UPI. In 2000, she moved to Hearst. Think of it: It was Helen Thomas who was in the briefing room when the Bay of Pigs almost sank Kennedy’s presidency, and it was she who covered the transition after JFK was killed. She was head of the pack when Lyndon Johnson used to parade reporters around the White House grounds instead of taking their questions in the press room. And she was on the job in 1968 holding LBJ’s feet to the fire in the wake of the catastrophic Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Who can ever forget those middle-of-the-night phone calls she used to receive from Martha Mitchell (wife of then-attorney general John Mitchell). Martha filled Helen’s ear full of juicy bits about the Nixon administration’s culpability in the Watergate scandal.

You name it: Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Katrina, AIDS, hostage crises, Middle East unrest, unemployment – if it happened anytime in the second half of the 20th century and up until last week, Helen Thomas was on it like white on rice. She was the curious mouth of the American people anytime she had the opportunity. Instead of occupying her gifted seat in the press room as a throne, she used it more as a bully pulpit. She caused the most powerful men in the free world to quake in their presidential boots. And while her peers were routinely more reverential to the President, Thomas was respectful, but persistent and borderline relentless in the quest for truth. She once said, “I don’t think a tough question is disrespectful.”

Thomas’s questions were informed, timely and just plain smart. But like every one of us, she had a fatal flaw. As she got older, she became overly aggressive and sometimes needlessly provocative in her communication. She even said, “I censored myself for 50 years. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’” Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post said last week, “She's always said crazy stuff. One reason she gets a pass is that there's an entrenched system of deference to seniority in the White House press corps. This newfound horror and dismay that people are expressing about Helen Thomas are beyond a day late and a dollar short.”

One can almost sense the rage at big, dishonest, unaccountable government that was building inside of her all of those years as she sat in the front row. By the time George Bush took office, she was evidently inconsolable. Just as it was for most of us, those eight Bush years were torturous for Thomas. Fiercely anti-war and consistently frustrated with the White House spin machine, maybe she just finally blew. Unfortunately, her contention that Jews didn’t belong in Palestine belies the fact that Jews have been there forever. And, of course, one cannot diminish the level of inhumanity that was wrought upon the six million people, many of them in Germany and Poland, two of the countries to which Thomas suggested the Jews should return. Thomas’s comments were uncharacteristically uninformed and inexplicably cruel.

But I, for one, will not fully condemn her. I know how tirelessly and tenaciously she worked to bring truth to the American people, and I have observed how consistently she pushed for transparency from American Presidents. Hers was a life of service to the American people, even if her career ended because she could no longer hide her misguided passion. Words were her vehicle, and ultimately words were her undoing. She did her best to tow the journalistic objectivity line as long as she could, and finally she simply couldn’t do it anymore. If she were younger, she could possibly somehow rehabilitate her career, but at 89 the clock is against her.

So, how do mixed feelings express themselves? Like this: Helen Thomas, thank you for doing a stellar job of holding the White House accountable, decade after decade. And Helen, shame on you, not only for insulting and hurting so many people with your recent words, but also for committing the Cardinal sin of reporting: You became the story, rather than reporting it. And this particular story had a very sad ending.

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