Helen Thomas opened journalism for women

Cranky White House correspondent fell from grace

July 24, 2013|Susan Reimer

Helen Thomas, the cranky White House correspondent who once said that there is no such thing as a rude question from a reporter, died last week at 92, her pioneering reputation tarnished by a streak of anger her role as a journalist had masked.

After United Press International, where she had worked for 57 years (49 as its chief White House correspondent), was purchased by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church in 2000, she resigned. But she was hired shortly thereafter by Hearst Newspapers as a political columnist, writing for another decade.

Ms. Thomas was one of nine children of Lebanese immigrants — her father could neither read not write but encouraged her to go to college — and after she became a columnist, her questioning of presidents, her writing and her speeches revealed a strong pro-Arab, anti-Israel sentiment.

"I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter," she said in one speech. "Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'"

"Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion," she said in another speech.

But it was the outrage at her videotaped comments to a blogging rabbi that forced her retirement.

When Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com asked her for comments on Israel at a White House event celebrating Jewish heritage, she said, "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land."

Asked where the Israelis should go, she said, "go home" to Poland or Germany or "America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?"

This was certainly not an opinion held only by Ms. Thomas, and the fact that she was a columnist gave her professional license to utter it. But such an opinion is unacceptable in this country.

"Sadly, she brought this on herself," said Ari Fleischer, press secretary under President George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama, who had gleefully greeted her on the occasion of his first official press conference, called her comments "offensive" and "out of line" and said her resignation was "the right decision."

Everybody lined up to criticize her, her name was dropped from awards and scholarships, her speaking agency dropped her and she was disinvited from graduation podiums.

But in a town of second chances, Ms. Thomas got hers. She was hired by the founder of the weekly Falls Church News-Press in Virginia, and she wrote for the paper until January 2012.

This kind of fall from grace is familiar to us now. An intemperate comment can bring down anyone in the public square, no matter the good they have done. Ms. Thomas, with her elbows out, opened a path through the male-dominated profession of journalism for women such as me, but she was banished from the job she considered a "joy" for her abrasive opinions.

She started at the Washington Daily News as a copy girl, getting coffee and lunches for the male editors. She was writing women's news and society profiles for United Press when she was sent to cover the glamorous new president on a family vacation in Palm Beach, Fla. But instead of writing about Jackie Kennedy's style, she wrote the presidential news of the day.

She convinced President Kennedy not to attend the annual dinner for the White House correspondents and photographers because they didn't allow women to attend. And she demanded to be admitted to the press conference where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised to "bury" the United States. Women weren't allowed in the National Press Club, either, but she would eventually be a member and its first female officer.

She went on to become the first woman to join the White House Correspondents' Association and the first woman to serve as its president. And she was the first female member of the Gridiron Club, Washington's historic press group, which announced her death. She was present at press briefings for 10 consecutive presidential administrations, and it was her voice you heard at the end of them, saying: "Thank you, Mr. President."

Thank you, Ms. Thomas. You made this career possible for the rest of us.

Susan Reimer's columns run Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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