I was a 21-year-old college student at the American University in Washington, D.C., when I saw Helen Thomas for the first time. The so-called “dean” of the White House press corps, regaled my class full of bright-eyed journalism students with her war stories from the trenches of political reporting.
She was fearless. There’s no other word to describe Thomas, who died Saturday at age 92, and who spent 49 years as a White House correspondent.
During that time, Thomas made presidents from both parties cringe when she hurled her hardball questions at them. She may have been the reporter who spoke the traditional line, “Thank you, Mr. President,” after each press conference, but she made it clear she worked for her readers and not for the administration, whichever one it may be.
But among Jews, she will be remembered, not just for her gutsy journalism, but for her hate-filled remarks about Israel.
In 2010, during a White House celebration for American Jewish Heritage Month, Thomas was asked by Rabbi David Nesenoff, a video reporter for RabbiLive.com if she had any comments about Israel.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she said. “Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not Germany and it’s not Poland.”
Pressed by Nesenoff about where the Jews should go, Thomas said, “They can go home — Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”
For a woman who spent her professional life asking tough questions in search of truth, Thomas’ remarks were a serious betrayal of her legacy.
Just what did she consider to be Palestine? (She never said.) And where exactly was “home” for the Jews who had lived in Israel for generations, not to mention those whose families were murdered in Germany and Poland?
Thomas never answered those
What saddens me about the many news obituaries I have read since her death is the way they white washed these remarks, treating them as an isolated incident, for which Thomas quickly apologized.
But as the Jewish media reported, Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, would launch her attacks in several forums:
• Also in 2010, she said during a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich.: “We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that. Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is.”
• During a 2011 interview on the “Joy Behar Show,” Thomas said that once World War II ended, the Jews “didn’t have to go anywhere really because they weren’t being persecuted anymore. But they were taking other people’s land.”
• And in an interview that same year with Playboy, Thomas said, “Sure, the Israelis have a right to exist — but where they were born, not to come and take someone else’s home. I’ve had it up to here with the violations against the Palestinians. Why shouldn’t I say it? I knew exactly what I was doing — I was going for broke. I had reached the point of no return. You finally get fed up.”
Her remarks on the White House lawn were not an isolated incident.
Perhaps Thomas believed she kept her opinions to herself long enough. She did tell an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002, “I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now, I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’ ”
But even opinion writers — serious opinion writers with journalistic backgrounds — are obliged to write their opinions based on facts.
That’s what Thomas forgot.
It was a sad end to such an amazing career.
Many in our community will dismiss Thomas as an Israel-hating journalist. Still, I’m sensitive to the thoughts of CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, a colleague of Thomas. He was reported by his network as writing, “I did not agree with her on the Middle East; I thought she was mistaken and short-sighted. But a lifetime of great work should not be overshadowed by a comment made at an advanced age.”
It was not just one comment, but several. Still, Reynolds frames the challenge we face in remembering Thomas. In the pantheon of news reporters, she was one of the best. At the end, though, she dropped her shield of objectivity, at least where Israel was concerned, revealing a visceral hatred that doesn’t become our profession.
To do posterity justice, both sides of Helen Thomas must be remembered.
(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of the Chronicle, can be reached at email@example.com.)