Helen Thomas has been a journalism legend for decades, the tiny lady in red who started covering the White House when John F. Kennedy became president, and has been there ever since, making most of us look lazy, blazing a trail for women.
She's traveled the world, and asked tough questions of 10 presidents over the last half-century. She bulldozed her way into such previously all-male institutions as the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club, and became United Press International's White House bureau chief. When UPI was taken over by the Moonies a decade ago, she bailed out. She thought her career was over, but was hired by Hearst Newspapers as a columnist.
Nor has she forgotten where she came from. She grew up on the east side of Detroit, graduated from Wayne State University, and remains fiercely proud of both. Ten years ago, she gave Wayne's journalism program some scholarship money, and we have an annual fund-raising tribute dinner in her name. She's never been too busy to make time for students who want to talk to her or to seek her advice.
Then, on May 27, she did something amazingly silly, insensitive and stupid. As a "deadline every minute" wire service reporter for 57 years, she was forced to stick to the facts, plus perhaps a little neutral analysis. But since she became a columnist, she has felt increasingly free to express her views, and she has become an increasingly harsh critic of Israel.
She has done a lot of public speaking in recent years, and her views have sometimes been so sharp that I have seen Jewish members of her audience squirm uncomfortably. But she really crossed the line on May 27, when a rabbi named David Nesenoff stuck a video camera in her face during a Jewish heritage celebration at the White House. What did she think of Israel? "They should get out of Palestine!" she said.
The rabbi appeared stunned. Any better comments? "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not German and it's not Polish."
Well, what should the Jews do? "Go home. Poland. Germany. And America and everywhere else," she said. Those comments were especially stunning because they appear to assert that Israel has no right to exist. Her words also seem crude, and shockingly insensitive and anti-Semitic. As Nesenoff indicated, millions of Polish and German Jews were killed in their home countries during the Holocaust.
The video didn't draw much attention right away, though Nesenoff posted it on his site, rabbilive.com. But late last week it went viral after it turned up on the Drudge report.
Helen issued an apology, but it sounded suspiciously wooden and corporate: "I deeply regret my comments last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance."
That wasn't enough. Within a day, her agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., announced it would no longer represent her. Conservatives, who for years have been angry with Thomas for her attacks on George W. Bush, pounced. Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary, called for her to be fired by Hearst. Time's Joe Klein called for Thomas to lose her famous permanent front row seat at White House press conferences.
Everyone piled on. Rick Lazio, the GOP candidate for governor of New York, called her "despicable" and a "racist," evidently in the hope of getting some Jewish votes.
For me, this was especially painful because I have known and admired Thomas for a long time; we had a long dinner together a few years ago in Washington, during which she indicated that she had no quarrel with Israel's right to exist.
What Helen said May 27 was indeed beyond belief, and clearly indicates that her problem goes far beyond criticizing the ham-handed and bullying policies of the state of Israel.
Thomas is the daughter of Christian Arabs who emigrated from Lebanon, and in recent years has seemed to identify more and more closely with the Arab cause. But what she said this time was far worse than insensitive. And still — this is a woman who has had an amazing career. We've watched her ask hard questions of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, both of whom had lied repeatedly to us.
We shouldn't forget either, that a lot of the right-wing anger is not really about her remarks to the rabbi. What they remember is her asking all the right questions of George W. Bush, including, over and over, why do we need war with Iraq? Where is the proof that they have weapons of mass destruction?
The White House lackeys would sneer and her fellow reporters would smirk. President Bush stopped calling on her, and stopped letting her end news conferences with her trademark, "Good night, Mr. President." She had no interest in going along to get along. And today, her record on pressing officials about their rush to war looks far better than that of those who parroted the White House line.
Helen Thomas' recent remarks were deeply offensive, and being 89 years old is no excuse. Yet it is hard for me to accept that one stupid act should cancel out a career. I wish there could have been a deal to allow her to retire gracefully on Aug. 4, the day she turns 90.
That is also the birthday of President Obama, who was born after she started covering the White House. But as was probably inevitable, on Monday she was forced to retire immediately.
As I write this, conservative bloggers are tastelessly making fun of Helen's looks and crowing that her gaffe is just one more indication that most liberals are closet anti-Semites. What this really shows is that nobody has a monopoly over really stupid speech.
Kilpatrick family values: With the defrocked mayor now properly installed in the state slammer, it is time for all good citizens to turn our attention to his mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, and try to figure out how to expunge her in the Aug. 3 primary.
It's hard to believe that CCK is the best U.S. representative her poor district can find. Essentially, she is a parasite for sale. Two years ago, she helped Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi take John Dingell's chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee away from him, weakening our state's clout in Congress.
Her price? Pelosi came here to campaign for her in that year's primary race, in which CCK narrowly beat Mary Waters. This year, Kilpatrick is the only member of the area's congressional delegation to stand with billionaire Manuel Moroun in opposing the vitally necessary Detroit River International Crossing.
Moroun wants to preserve his monopoly control and stranglehold on trade. But what's Kilpatrick's excuse? Simple: The Moroun family has given her more than $57,000 in campaign donations. Sweet. Kilpatrick also sticks it to the taxpayers by making them pay $1,230 a month to lease a Chevrolet Tahoe for her to cruise around her tiny district. She has five challengers in the primary, the best known of whom is state Sen. Hansen Clarke.
If the others care about the voters, they ought to drop out now and do what they can to help Hansen defeat Cruella — oops — Carolyn.
The honor of Detroit and Michigan depend on it.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]