Helen Thomas was good to me. For a long time I liked and admired her.
When I first arrived to cover the White House in 1997, I found myself suddenly surrounded by famous journalists. A few had attitudes. Most were polite but basically busy and unfriendly to a new member of the beat who didn’t work for one of the major news organizations.
And then there were a few without any pretense at all who were willing to deal with anyone as just another human being who might be nice to talk to. Sam Donaldson of ABC. Bill Plante of CBS. John Palmer of NBC. And yes, Helen.
She wasn’t warm or grandmotherly. But she wasn’t cold and direct either. At the time I met her, she was still a busy woman, leading the White House team for United Press International. She was friendly, considerate, and, if she had a moment, she listened to what you had to say. I think she probably offered some words of encouragement to me too.
Sitting in the front row of the briefing room, she was everything we see too little of now. Each new press secretary got a Helen hazing on their first day, and she barely let up afterward. She slung tough questions fearlessly, and let the press secretaries know when they were dodging.
Most reporters, especially today, pose timid little queries hoping the press secretary will be charitable with a morsel of information for them to nibble on and write a story off of.
She was a liberal, I suspected – before she was open about it – but you hardly knew it. She skewered the Clinton people mercilessly. Even, occasionally – long after she came out as a lefty – the Obama flacks too.
Have a look at one of her final moments of glory.
As the Bush administration got underway, Helen had left UPI and begun as a columnist. Armed with her opinions, she eventually became something of a crank, lobbing predictable demands and criticisms at the press secretary.
Everyone knew not to get too close to her in the press room, lest you be cornered and subject to a barrage of obloquy, slander, and invective directed at Bush through you.
One knew always, from the slant of her questions, that she was pro-Palestinian. But one didn’t know until that day just over three years ago, in an interview on the White House driveway with Rabbi David Nesenoff of Rabbilive.com, that she was anti-semitic.
Nesenoff: “Any comments on Israel We’re asking everybody today?
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine… Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland’s.”
Nesenoff: “So where should they go? What should they do?”
“They should go home. Poland Germany, and America, and everywhere else. Why push people out who live there for centuries, see?.
Nesenoff: Are you familiar with the history of that region?
“Very much. I’m of Arab background.”
Here’s the video:
Most veteran Washington journalists are lamenting, I can tell you, that a storied journalism career in which an intrepid reporter held power to account and opened doors closed in the profession to woman should now be characterized as much by this awful coda as anything.
Well, a few things about that.
What happened made me terribly sad and disappointed too, especially as a Jew who felt warmly to her. But I don’t lament that her anti-semitism now gets equal billing with the rest of it.
First of all, if she had said something racist – forget it, there would have been no one in Washington rallying to her defense. Anti-semitism is a little less provocative, apparently.
And she didn’t just make some joke or expression of bias. She suggested, at best, callousness toward the notion that Jews would be returned to the ovens of Germany and Poland and roasted into ashes.
After expressing “regret” – but not apologizing – she retired and went on to in other fora to proclaim that the Jews controlled the Hollywood, the White House, Wall Street, and so forth. As if Jews get together at some secret synagogue on Shabbat to map out their tyranny for the rest of the week. Oh, and drink the blood of Palestinian children.
Helen turned out to be a deeply angry person with plenty of hatred in her heart. She kept it in check until she was too old to worry about appearances.
I doubt she would be very concerned about the asterisk that will forever be next to her name. She’d take the charge of anti-semitism if it would help get out the “truth” about what she thinks is the persecution of Palestinians by the Jews.
Which is exactly the problem with Helen.