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Helen Thomas, RIP

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.

Helen Thomas Dead at 92

Updated 1:30 pm ET

Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas died today at the age of 92.

Thomas covered every president since John F. Kennedy. She worked for UPI and then Hearst until retiring abruptly in 2010 after saying the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Germany and Poland.

I wanted to let you know she had died. I worked with her at the White House from 1997 until her retirement, and I’ll share some personal reflections Monday.

UPDATE: Obama released a statement early this afternoon:

Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Helen Thomas.  Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism.  She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes.

What made Helen the “Dean of the White House Press Corps” was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.  Our  thoughts are with Helen’s family, her friends, and the colleagues who respected her so deeply.

Note he skirts her antisemitism. Would he have done similarly, I wonder, if she had said something racist?

Helen Thomas Gets Award From the Palestinians

Even when she was a mainstream, supposedly unbiased journalist, veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas made clear her sympathies for the Palestinians. She was excused for her bias because she expressed this is in the form of tough questions, not pronouncements, and didn’t go overboard.

Once she left UPI and started doing a column, any effort to hide her sympathies was off. And then she was ousted her position, and therefore from the White House press corps, when it became clear that lurking just below her pro-Palestinian views was anti-semitism.

Sure, she was quite old when she declared on the White House driveway in 2010 that the Jews should leave Israel and head back to Germany and Poland, places where they had been gassed to death and then had their corpses incinerated or thrown in ditches. But my experience with really old people is that they start saying things that they had held in check during their younger, politer years, as opposed to making up new stuff.

Here’s her final moment as the widely revered Helen Thomas:

So it’s little surprise at this point that Helen has received an award of some kind from the Palestinian envoy to the U.S. for the very words that got her booted from her final White House gig.

I felt bad after Helen’s outburst. As a young reporter who suddenly found himself amidst giants of journalism covering the White House, she had been kind to me and gave off no airs that she was some kind of legend, which she was.

And she was one of the toughest questioners in the White House press room, putting to shame those a third her age, as well as the entire group frankly that quizzes Jay Carney today.

I’d say her story is a tragedy, but its really not. Anti-semitism is a tragedy.

Helen Thomas is Back with More Hatred for Jews

Helen Thomas, who earlier this year went down in a blaze of anti-semitism as the dean of the White House press corps, has added to her portfolio of hate with a few more anti-semitic ravings in an interview with Playboy.

On remembering the Holocaust:

There’s nothing wrong with remembering it, but why do we have to constantly remember?

On Israeli actions being equivalent to those committed against Jews by the NAZIs:

They can’t just come in and say, “This is my home,” knock on the door at three in the morning and have the Israeli military take them out. That’s what happens. And that’s what happened to the Jews in Germany. Why do they inflict that same pain on people who did nothing to them?

On the Jews running the United States:

Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists.

PLAYBOY: That stereotype of Jewish control has been around for more than a century. Do you actually think there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy at work in this country?

THOMAS: Not a secret. It’s very open. What do you mean secret?

And BTW, men, this will give you an excellent chance to take a guilt free look at the Playboy website. “Honey, I’m just reading the Helen Thomas interview.”

Blame me. It’s okay.

And P.S., It never occurred to me I’d be looking in Playboy to see Helen Thomas.

When Barack Met Bibi

The Scene: Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his aides have just entered to Oval Office for his meeting today with President Obama. The Israelis are determined to avoid a repeat of the last White House session, when Obama stiffed them for part of the time and refused to take a picture with Netanyahu. The Israelis fear Obama is tilting toward the Palestinians but hope that, at the very least, the need for Jewish votes will help tilt him back.

As Netanyahu and  his aides walk in, they notice an surprising presence. Netanyahu wonders briefly if she is here to ask him some questions.

Obama: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome, it is a pleasure to have you here at the White House. I promise not to have any more snit fits and to spend a little more time with you today. First, I’d like to call on Secretary of State Clinton to present you with the Reset Button. Hillary?

Clinton: Mr. Prime Minister, the Israel desk at the State Department has built a special Reset Button for you and I to press together. I so enjoyed pressing the Reset Button last year with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. As you are aware, the Reset Button has provided tremendous benefits to Russia, including President Obama’s willingness to forget all about Russia taking a bite out of Georgia and his decision to place defensive missiles that were supposed to be put in Eastern Europe into the country of Lichtenstein instead.

As you can see, we’ve written “reset” in Hebrew in order to make you feel more comfortable. So please, let’s go ahead and press it so that we can begin the meeting.

Netanyahu: It says, “Shalom.”

Clinton: Well, frankly Mr. Prime Minister, that’s the only word I know in Hebrew, and no one on the Israel desk speaks the language. I thought Shalom meant like seven things in English – “peace,” “hello,” “goodbye,” you know – are you sure none of the meanings is “reset?”

Netanyahu: I’m sure.

Clinton: Well, in that case, let’s just press the damn button and get this over with. OK, put your hand next to mine, not too close . . .

Netanyahu: Look, I don’t mean to be a stickler for details here, but shouldn’t I be pushing this with President Obama? I mean, I’m the leader of my nation, and the president is my counterpart.

Obama: Listen, you want to press the reset button or not? I can get Abbas in here tomorrow and press a button in Arabic with him if you’d like. I can translate that one myself.

Netanyahu: Really?

Obama: Of course not! Just yanking your chain. You pressing?

Netanyahu: Okay, I’ll press.

Clinton: Okay, put your hand over here, that’s right and . . . PRESS! Great job! Doesn’t that feel good?

Netanyahu: It feels okay

Obama: Well, now let’s get down to serious business. Mr. Prime Minister, as part of our reinvigorated outreach to your country and our stepped up focus on the Mideast, I’ve appointed a new White House assistant for Israeli policy. Some will call her the “Israel Czar.” Mr. Prime Minister, please meet Ms. Helen Thomas.

Helen: Hi Bibi!

Netanyahu: What?

Helen: Well, Bibi, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m the new Israel Czar at the White House and I’d like to outline for you my pogrom – I mean my program – for Israel.

Netanyahu: “This is an outrage! Where’s Rahm? I like to deal with Rahm when I’m here!

Helen: Rahm is just a little tied up right now. Bwahahahahaha!

Netanyahu: What does that mean? What have you done with Rahm?

Obama: Don’t worry, Mr. Prime Minister, Rahm is just attending to other important matters.

Helen: Bwahahahahaha!

Obama: Helen, cut it out.

Helen: Sorry, Mr. President.

Obama: Now, Mr. Prime Minister. Helen is one of the most knowledgeable people in Washington about Israeli-Palestinian affairs. I’m sure you will find her easy to work with. Helen, please outline our strategy.

Helen: So, here’s what I’ve got it so far. First, we relocate the Jews of Israel to Tanzania. We do that by sending all the Tanzanians to Uganda and so forth.

Netanyahu: You’ve got to be kidding me

Obama: Do you have a problem with East Africa?

Netanyahu: No, it’s just that –

Helen: Also, when you leave Israel, please be sure to leave behind your nuclear weapons as you won’t need to defend yourself against the Arabs once you get to Tanzania. The Iranians have agreed to come in and dispose of them for you.

Obama: Yeah, you need to get up off of those nukes, Bibi. It’s not fair that you’ve got them and nobody else does. Iran is going to convert them to provide electricity for the Hurricane-ravaged people of Haiti. Ahmadinejad himself told me.

Netanyahu: Mr. President, this has been really great, but I need to be going . . .

Helen: To Tanzania! Bwahahahahaha!

Netanyahu: Thanks for the meeting. We’ll call you if we need anything else.

Goodbye Helen. Hello Connie. And Les.

The Queen is Dead. Long live the Queen!

With the Helen Thomas finally carted out of the White House on a stretcher ranting about the Jews, the new senior member of the White House press corps is Connie Lawn of Audio-Video News. Her deputy, the second longest serving correspondent, is World News Daily’s Les Kinsolving

Helen and AriOMG like what can I say? I can’t possibly be rude to people I have to work with every day. Let’s just say there is, in places on this earth, living, tangible proof of Woody Allen’s dictum that 80 percent of success is just showing up.

Connie is known around the White House press corps for making statements that prompt one to think Really? Are you sure? about her past experiences and asking questions of the White House press secretary about terrorism and the like that seem strangely related to concerns about her own personal safety.

Les is known for sonorously reading borderline insane statements – couched as questions – during the daily briefings and offering looks of deeply put-upon incredulity when the briefing ends before he is called on.

I can’t help liking them both. Well I like one them. I won’t say which.

And what do I know? For years one of the claims Connie would regularly make around the White House press room was, “Nelson Mandela used to listen to me while he was in prison.” We all just nodded our heads. Sure, Connie. One of history’s greatest figures, fumbling with his little jail cell transistor to see what Connie has to say to him. Right.

Then one day Mandela came to the White House for a visit. After meeting with the president – maybe it was George W. – he came out to greet the reporters at the mikes on the driveway.

At the end of his remarks, Connie goes walking over to him and says, “President Mandela, I’m Connie Lawn!”

Mandela hesitated for a moment. And then his face lit up:

“Oh CONNIE LAWN, I used to listen to you in prison!”

Anyway, here’s a video of the two made by the other day by the website Mediaite. It might give you some idea what I’m talking about.

On Helen Thomas

I don’t think the world expected Helen Thomas to suddenly start urging the Jews to exit Israel, but a lot of us who have worked with her at the White House are not completely surprised.

Let’s take a look just one more time. Here are her full remarks as given to rabbilive.com

Helen, though just about 90, is still thinking clearly. What has happened in the last few years is that, whatever it is that intercepts many of our thoughts and prevents them from coming out our mouths has eroded down to nothing in Helen’s head. And so, she says whatever the Hell she wants, pretty much whenever she wants.

And she does it obsessively. You cannot have a conversation with Helen anymore without her launching into the evils of George W. Bush, his wars, or Republicans and their policies. She either assumes you agree or doesn’t care. Any natural give and take of regular conversation is gone.

That this depleted filter caused her to say something nasty about Israel is also unsurprising to her colleagues. Helen has been bemoaning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians for years.

What surprised was the viciousness of it. I’m willing to bet that the direction she wanted to send the Jews in – back to Germany and Poland, where they were slaughtered during her early adulthood – was not given by accident.

After hearing carefully crafted Washington non-apologies all her life, that’s exactly what she gave us after everyone recoiled in horror at her words. Nothing short of  “What I said was completely wrong, I was smoking pot to ease my joint pain, I take it back, I’m sorry Jewish people” would have sufficed.”

Helen ThomasBut instead, she decided she wasn’t taking it back, just expressing “regret.” And when that wasn’t enough, she quit rather than correct her words.

I’m not willing to excuse this just because she is so old. My experience is that old people tend to rant what they’ve always been thinking rather than veer off in some surprising new direction.

All her life, Helen questioned power fearlessly. While she was still a beat reporter with UPI, I witnessed her tear into press secretaries with unusual courage in a room that is sometimes reticent because it has to spend the rest of the non-briefing day sucking up to the press shop. And she often did it with a sense of fun and a touch of compassion from one’s elders.

But beneath the grandmotherliness – and not far beneath – was a truly angry person. And I’m sorry to say it.

She was really good to me, a young reporter suddenly thrust onto the White House beat 13 years ago. Never a hint of hubris or ego out of her.

I’ll never forget one soupy hot July day in 1997, when some people had emerged from a White House meeting with President Clinton and were on the driveway at the microphones talking about the tobacco legislation that would begin to emerge from Congress that year.

While we all stood melting, there was 78 year old Helen, a pen and reporter’s notepad in hand, scooting around, just trying to get the story. Just another reporter, hoping for a little copy to inform her readers.

Would that I could remember her solely that way.