Sunday, July 21, 2013

Helen Thomas, 1920-2013

Journalist Helen Thomas died yesterday at the age of 92. The obituaries now appearing characterize her with a variety of epithets-- "trailblazer," "pioneer," "feisty scourge," "barrier-busting," "former dean of White House Press," as well as others considerably less respectful. I knew her name for all my adult life, and I recall numerous occasions on which the sharpness of her questions to presidents and presidential press secretaries and the often faux-jocular but pained way presidents responded to her directness delighted me. I loved that though they wanted to dismiss her for being a woman, their attempts at handling her were transparently not to their credit.

Thomas was the US-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants ("Thomas" apparently being Ellis-Islandese for "Antonious"). Wikipedia has a couple of quotes from her about growing up as the daughter of Middle-Eastern immigrants: "We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people." The entry notes that she remarked that as a child in Detroit in the 1920s, "They wanted to make you feel you weren't 'American'... We were called 'garlic eaters'."

Wikipedia offers lots more details-- about the course of her career, her honors and awards, the books she published, and her increasing frankness after she quit UPI in 2000. (I suspect this increasing frankness also had something to do with her age. Over the last few years, I've been noticing that women become franker and franker the older they get.) They quote her saying in a speech at MIT, "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’" This was, as the entry notes, a quip. But I think the entry's description of a skirmish at a press conference in 2007 best illustrates the point:
In a press conference on November 30, 2007, Thomas questioned White House Press Secretary Dana Perino as to why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to re-deploy U.S troops from Iraq. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected with "You mean how many more people we kill?"
Perino immediately took offense, responding: Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.
Refusing to back down, Thomas responded immediately by asking Perino if she knew how many innocent Iraqis had been killed and then questioned the worth of regret when Perino responded that the administration regretted the loss of all innocent Iraqi lives.
For the harsh, interminable duration of the Bush II Administration, the White House press corps happily assumed the role of courtiers admiring the Emperor's New Clothes. The press secretary's remonstrance underscores the press corps' failure to call the administration on its war crimes. In short, Thomas was one of the few public persons during the Bush Administration openly daring to speak truth to power.

Thomas's national career virtually ended in 2010 with an outburst against against Israeli Jews, fueled by long anger and frustration at the State of Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians. A few days later, after she had resigned, she noted "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon." Her outburst, of course, was publicly unforgivable. As Ralph Nader commented, one off-hand "ill-conceived remark" ended Helen Thomas’ career while "ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters" engaged in "bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-semitism against Arabs."

Thomas's trailblazing, of course, refers to her having forged a successful career despite being a woman, which was definitely a liability in the 1940s and 1950s. She started as a "copy-girl" for the Washington Daily News in 1943-- a job she lost less than a year later after joining a strike action. In 1959, she and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The entry notes: Many female journalists memorialized Thomas on Twitter, including Judy Woodruff, who called her a "trailblazer", and Lynn Sweet, who said she was a "glass ceiling breaking journalist".[89] Andrea Mitchell tweeted that Thomas "made it possible for all of us who followed."[90] Dana Perino, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, remembered that on her first day as Press Secretary, Thomas approached her to give her words of encouragement. (Presumably Perino didn't hold that exchange about killing innocent people against her.)

Of all the epithets characterizing her, let me add this one: indomitable. In my mind, she belongs to the pantheon of women journalists like Molly Ivins and Mary McGrory whom we forget at our peril.

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