Monday, July 22, 2013

1203 Helen Thomas

1203 Helen Thomas

A late in life Mitt Romney/Jesse Jackson moment tarnished a lifetime of achievement.

Helen Thomas died last week just days short of her 93rd birthday.   Pitt bull of a reporter who covered the White House when United Press and then United Press International was still a respectable news wire.

Pioneer woman reporter.  First woman to do this thing, then that thing.  Almost universally regarded by colleagues and competitors and feared by Presidents and kings, and rightfully so.

But when you talk about “pioneering women” reporters, you also have to look back to World War II when Marguerite Higgens of the New York Herald Tribune and Margaret Bourke-White of Life Magazine covered the battlefield.  This takes nothing from Thomas’ rise to head the Washington Bureau and then cover the White House.  But it kind of takes the edge off her reputed first-ness.

She had the grit to stay with UPI from 1943 to 2000, 57 years. That was difficult, as the agency was passed from hand to hand like a  Queens Plaza streetwalker.  When  the Moonies bought it and tied it to the arch conservative propaganda sheet, the Washington Times, she resigned.  She wrote a slew of good columns for a syndicate after that.

But then came that moment when she made an on mic comment, just like Mitt about the 47 percent and Jesse Jackson about “Hymietown.”  What, she was asked, should happen to Israel?  The answer:  “The Jews should get the hell out of ‘Palestine’ and go back to where they belong... Germany or Poland...”

That went viral and a few days later she “retired” from her Hearst column.

It’s hard to call a person of Semitic heritage an anti-Semite.  Thomas was born in Kentucky.  Her parents came from a part of Syria that now is in Lebanon.  Shifting borders are no rarer in the Arab Middle East than they are in, say, Germany, Poland or any other place she evidently considered Jewish Homelands.

So for argument’s sake, let’s just say Ms. Thomas was having a tough day and give her the benefit of the doubt that she had a temporary lapse. And after all, she had promoted herself as a cranky old lady for years... really long before she actually became one.

Except many of her associates said they’d heard plenty more along those lines.

Certainly she had the right to criticize Israel.  But as former Clinton confidante Lanny Davis wrote in the New York Post three years ago, there are ways to express that and there are ways.

So Thomas goes to her eternal rest with an outpouring of kudos from her former colleagues and several Presidents.  And the one large slip of the mind puts an asterisk next to her bio in the Quirky Journalist Hall of Fame.

Once asked (on NPR) the difference between a “probing question” and a “rude question,”  she answered “There are no rude questions.”

Okay, then, here’s one for her:  If you believe what you said, why did you apologize and if you don’t believe what you said, why did you say it?

And another:  If Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon or George HW Bush or George W Bush made an apology as lame as yours was, would you have accepted it at face value and moved on?

You bet you wouldn’t.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them.
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© WJR 2013

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