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    imperfect hero

    Good-bye to a legend

    by | Jul 20, 2013

    Helen Thomas will always be a hero to me. None of that “shero” stuff. You’re either a hero or you’re not, no special designation if you’re a woman. Helen was a reporter, not a reportrix or a reportress. A reporter, a journalist. A real journalist.

    Helen Thomas at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2009.

    Helen Thomas at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2009.

    Helen Thomas covered 10 — count ‘em — 10 presidents. She questioned John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all with the same sharp, penetrating style that made presidents and press secretaries alike uncomfortable because an honest answer might seem very impolitic.

    You always ask tough questions, tough questions not in the sense of being unfair, but hard to generalize the answers.

    — Nixon to Thomas

    She was an unabashed liberal, on more than one occasion saying that she didn’t understand how a reporter could not be, seeing what they see first hand.

    What’s a liberal? I care about the poor, the sick, and the maimed. I care whether we go to war for unjust causes. I care whether we shoot people who are innocent.

    — Helen Thomas

    Liberal, but not a partisan. If you think Helen Thomas only tossed hardball questions at Republican presidents, go check out a few news conferences with Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson, and Jackie Kennedy called her a harpy. She did think GWB was the worst president ever. Dunno if she was justified in saying that because she was only a reporter for 70 years, not the full 200+ we’ve had presidents. She kept asking the questions the rest of the press failed to ask about the Iraq war, and it cost her that seat on the front row of the briefing room. Colleagues ridiculed her about those questions, called her rude, I’m guessing more because she was asking them and they weren’t than anything else.

    I don’t think there are any rude questions.

    — Helen Thomas

    But  her career certainly crashed and burned when she told a rabbi with a video camera that Jews in Israel ought to “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to where they came from, like Poland, Germany and the United States. I’m not justifying that. I don’t know what made her say it, what might have been going on right before the encounter with the rabbi. Of Lebanese descent, Helen was uncompromisingly pro-Palestinian, and she rightfully complained that in the US government, it is just not allowed to criticize Israel. But those statements … ouch. Pretty low, really shocking.

    Helen’s last job was a weekly column for the Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press, a humble ending to an illustrious career. She had been among the handful of female reporters who forced the National Press Club to let them attend their newsmakers luncheons in 1956 (albeit in a balcony, barred from asking questions) and kept at it until the club finally, in 1971, allowed women as members. She broke gender barriers at the White House Correspondents Association and the Gridiron Club, too, and was the only print reporter to accompany Richard Nixon to China.

    With her death goes the last link to a White House Press Corps with integrity and audacity. Yeah, it’s not audacious for a conservative blog to send a high school junior  to a White House press briefing to ask if the president was leaving George Zimmerman and his family “on their own” against death threats. That’s, in the words of press secretary Jay Carney, “ridiculous.” If you need it spelled out — which apparently Gabe Finger, whose twitter handle is “@GabeemtheFinger,” needed — that would be local law enforcement’s responsibility.

    Helen Thomas never would have asked such a question, and certainly wouldn’t have sent out such a tweet. She didn’t even have a Twitter account, and if she had, I’m pretty damn sure her handle wouldn’t have been something akin to @HelenAHandBasket or @HelenWheels. But that’s what inside the Beltway “journalism” has become, I’m afraid — stuck in those high school moments, although most of them, at least, have the sense not to get sophomorically cute with their Twitter names.

    Helen probably wouldn’t have been asking about Zimmerman at all, and she certainly wouldn’t have flogged Benghazi and the IRS long after those “scandals” were shown to be nothing more than right wing talking points. But she would have asked the questions that needed asking, over and over again until she got an answer, until she got the truth.

    The truth, rather than an agenda, should be the goal of a free press.

    — Helen Thomas

    Helen Thomas, Kentucky-born to Lebanese immigrants and Detroit-raised, died Saturday at her home in Washington. She was 92. We may never see the likes of her again, and I’m sure there are plenty who hope that’s true. I’m not one of them. We need more Helen Thomases, and soon.

    ###
    • Photo in story: Rachael Voorhees, Creative Commons license. Photo on main page: Library of Congress
    KC Wildmoon

    KC Wildmoon

    KC Wildmoon is an accidental journalist who never even bothered to finish school since her accounting major was incredibly boring. Instead, she opted for being a minor rock star and annoying as many government officials as possible on a regular basis. After 16 years at CNN, she's now doing forensic journalism for Ireland-based Storyful.

     

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    • Trevor Irvin

      She was one of the good ones and will be sorely missed. The ranks of real reporting has been thinned.

      Regards,
      T

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