Proof once again that an ill-thought and unguarded sentence, spoken in the White House Rose Garden, can end or irreparably harm even the most impressive career. Senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas, longtime correspondent with United Press International (UPI), covering 10 presidents over 50 years, saw her years in the White House Press Corps come quickly to an end with the Web broadcast and re-broadcast of an inexplicable outburst aimed at Jewish settlers in Palestine.
During a White House Jewish Heritage Celebration on May 27, Thomas gave an impromptu interview to Jewish Rabbi David Nesenoff in the company of two students. All three in the party were wearing yarmulkes and evidently there in support of their faith. The Rabbi posted excerpts from the interview online at RabbiLIVE.com, on YouTube and elsewhere.
“Tell’em to get the hell out of Palestine!” a somewhat bemused Thomas offers as advice to Israel regarding settlements in Palestine territories along the Gaza strip. Thomas then blithely suggested that Palestine is in fact “occupied” territory and that established Jewish residents and settlers would do well to return “home” to Poland, Germany or even the United States. Though World War II pre-dates Thomas’ long tenure in the White House Press Corps, the wounds of the Holocaust and execution of as many as six million people of Jewish descent remain all too fresh for many. Thomas should know better.
Following the purchase of UPI by the Unification Church in 2000, Thomas left her perch as a longtime wire service correspondent and became a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. Due to professional courtesy by the White House Correspondent Association, Thomas retained her seniority and front row seat in the White House Press Corps and at all presidential press conferences. Though long known for her strong opinions, Ms. Thomas became increasingly more opinionated and strident in her questions to the White House. Thomas is of Lebanese descent, and while her views on the Middle East have long been considered Pro-Arab, the depth of her potential animosity toward people of Jewish descent has only more recently come into view.
Within days of her comment to the rabbi, and his subsequent posting online, The Drudge Report and several other online news outlets drew enough attention to cause a Montgomery County high school (a D.C. suburb) to withdraw its invitation for Thomas to serve as commencement speaker. Although traditional media and the national networks initially shied away from reporting the Thomas gaffe, continuing competitive pressure from Fox News and other online sources eventually brought the story into the mainstream. In the swirl of complaints and controversy that followed, the nearly 90-year-old Thomas tendered her resignation and immediately retired from Hearst, followed by a short apology on her online Web site.
Members of the Washington press, and particularly the White House Press Corps can be particularly unkind to public figures and office holders in their twilight years. It isn’t difficult to remember the tough and sometimes even mocking coverage received by U.S. Senators Strom Thurmond, John Stennis or more recently Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia when it became apparent that their best and most effective days as lawmakers were long since passed.
Mike Wallace retired from 60 Minutes and CBS News at the age of 88. Walter Cronkite stepped off the anchor desk in 1981 after 19 years at almost the top of his game. Larry King is still talking and hosting Larry King Live on CNN after 25 years at the age of 77. Barbara Walters, just recovering from open heart surgery continues contributions to ABC News as well as hosting The View, at the age of 81.
In a town (Washington) that rewards seniority almost like no other, and a Congress that receives such harsh criticism and scrutiny for that same seniority system, it seems only reasonable that some entity like the National Press Club or White House Correspondents Association could develop guidelines for stepping off such a challenging beat assignment while you can still do so under your own power. As with many of the politicians whom they cover, the key is simply knowing when it becomes “the best time to go.”
Thomas, a true White House trailblazer who has covered every president since J.F.K. would often comment, “You are only as good as your last story.” In writing her own news service obituary, it is more than a bit sad to watch such an illustrious career end on such an unfortunate note. Say it ain’t so Helen.
Bill Crane is a DeKalb County native and business owner, living in Scottdale, Georgia. He also serves as chief political analyst and commentator for 11Alive News and WSB Radio, News/Talk 750. Contact Bill Crane at Bill@dekalbchamp.com.