The Helen Thomas I Knew: Reflections on Her Last Years by the Editor Who Sought Her Rebound

July 20, 2013 4:13 PM43 comments
helenthomassolo045web

HELEN THOMAS at her home in Washington, D.C. in December 2010. (Photo: Simon VanSteyn)

Kind words came today from the President of the United States and the President of the White House Correspondents Association on the passing this morning, at age 92, of legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

As President Obama said in his short statement, “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism. She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes. What made Helen the ‘Dean of the White House Press Corps’ was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account.” She was also born the same day as President Obama.

I was proud and honored to offer Helen Thomas an opportunity to pen a weekly column in my newspaper, becoming the last employer of her storied career, which she did studiously and with her usual sharp wit and acumen for over a year from January 2011 to February 2012, when her failing health forced her to stop.

It would have been nice had she been able to hear today’s kind words from the President and the organization where she’d been the first woman president while she was alive.

Her coming on board my Falls Church News-Press provided her, and many of those who remained loyal to her legacy, an opportunity to brush off the horrible spill her career took in June 2010 when she was videotaped sharply rebuking the Israeli policy of encouraging immigrants to occupy the West Bank. Taken out of context, the remarks were widely denounced as anti-Semitic, a fact she repeatedly denied. But her journalistic colleagues deserted her completely, as did President Obama, who denounced her and no doubt would have taken back if he could the birthday cupcake he shared with her in the White House press briefing room the previous August 4.

The usually spry, alert and witty 90-year-old Helen Thomas suffered a great emotional hurt, and announced her retirement immediately. But the bonds of friendship and admiration I had built with her over a decade preceding – that included carrying her syndicated column in my newspaper weekly since 2004 and her memorable visits to my office as the guest of honor at receptions – led me to immediately contact her with an offer to write for me. My newspaper’s circulation might not be as big as what she was used to, but our online edition gave her a global audience.

We met over dinner with mutual friends to discuss it, and then in December 2010 she indicated through a third party that she’d like to do it. I called her, and her immediate reaction was, “You don’t want me. I am poison. I will be poison for you.” I convinced her that didn’t concern me. We had two wonderful, lengthy meetings after that, and she began writing for me in January 2011.

I received some minor threats, but nothing serious. On the other hand, I received great expressions of appreciation from her countless fans coming in letters, post cards, emails and phone calls. When I traveled with her to New York for an interview on CNN, she was besieged with fans and well-wishers the entire way – up, there and back. It was as if she were a rock star. Those who knew what had happened to her expressed contempt and disgust for how she was treated.

In the studios of CNN, we ran across Rosie O’Donnell, who overwhelmed Helen with hugs and loud praise as a pioneer for women. Rosie was so emphatic that it brought Helen to tears. Weeks later, they later got together for lunch.

Still, despite her writing revival, the White House press office stonewalled on providing her a new press pass, and the White House Correspondents Association refused to offer her the usual table that she’d commandeered for years since before becoming its first female president. She won a consolation prize, however, when we secured for her a press pass from the Senate Periodical Press Gallery, and it was a redemptive moment, caught on camera, when she was handed that cherished symbol of her 60-year professional career, an official D.C. press pass.

Among her many loyal supporters were past presidents and officers of the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) who were appalled that the board of that organization moved swiftly to strike Helen’s name from a scholarship award.

At the fall annual meeting of the SPJ in New Orleans in 2011, these supporters forced a vote on the floor of a general session to reinstate her name. A heated debate ensued, and although a close vote failed to reinstate her name, many who rushed to condemn her were shamed by having to defend caving in to political pressures.

In November 2011, some of these supporters, including past SPJ president Christine Tatum, worked with me to host a reception at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to honor Helen. Many of her old friends and colleagues attended, and after the formal reception was over, Helen held forth in the First Amendment Lounge telling old war stories to a large contingent of wide-eyed younger supporters.

In prepared remarks she made that night and in numerous other occasions where I was present, Helen Thomas professed to being anything but the kind of hate-filled racist she was portrayed to be. She vehemently denied being anti-Semitic, noting that, being of Lebanese descent, she was a Semite, herself. She exhibited compassion and a love of people everywhere she went. She knew me to be an openly gay newspaper owner, and it never phased her. Still, she was sharp in her professional criticism, always asking the tough questions, the toughest of all being, “But what about the truth?”

She wrote a scathing critique of her journalistic colleagues in 2006, a book entitled, “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.” In it, she took her White House press corps colleagues to task for failing to press President George W. Bush hard enough leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

This, it is presumed, contributed to her colleagues’ unwillingness to defend her from the unfair charges that brought her down in the summer of 2010. This spring, in an article entitled, “Journalism’s Crazy Old Aunt: Helen Thomas and Paradigm Repair” published in the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, authors Elizabeth Hindman and Ryan Thomas evaluated the many editorials and op-ed denouncing Helen after the 2010 incident, and along with a number of interviews, determined that the press were not interested in the “truth” dealing with Helen Thomas, but with defending the “normative behaviors and standards of an operational paradigm that defines acceptable behavior within their profession.” Helen was relegated to status as an “maverick and errant outsider unrepresentative of mainstream journalism” who no longer “belongs.” She was portrayed as descended into eccentricity and even senility (far from the truth, as anyone would attest who knew her).

So, the shameful behavior of her colleagues “kicking her under the proverbial bus” was more for their own self-preservation – including a perpetuation of their pattern of failure to drive for the truth as Helen had pointed out – than anything Helen actually said seen in proper context.

Was she opinionated? Of course, because she’d actually ceased being an “objective” reporter in 2000 when she quit United Press International after it had been taken over by the Moonies. She came on as an opinion writer for Hearst newspapers, such that being opinionated had become her job for years, and she was clearly no fan of the Israeli West Bank policy.

It is unfortunate that now, it may take her death for the world to begin to reassess and concede Helen Thomas’ true greatness. I am glad I had the opportunity to contribute in a small way to that brought some degree of redemption and happiness to the final years of Helen’s life.

An enlarged picture of Helen and I laughing together hangs in my office. She signed it for me, reading, “To Nick, my favorite journalist, with deep appreciation.”

  • CarlFromLaurel

    Helen Thomas was not taken out of context, as the author of this article contends. Ms. Thomas was grossly anti-Semitic. I was present at a very small event in Baltimore that featured Helen Thomas several years before the incident that led to her being ostracized. She said many of the things that night she would later say to her eternal discredit. I heard every word that night with my own two ears, not some excerpt, and she was appalling. Like a classic anti-Semite she was obsessed about the secret power of Jews believing that they ‘owned’ the White House and the media. Though she was supposedly a ‘fearless journalist’ and truth teller she never wrote a single word in an article naming the Jewish people who controlled these institutions or how they used that power to corrupt the process. She was just, unfortunately, a hate-filled person in a spewing rage. Her belief that Jews in Israel should return to the countries in Europe that attempted to exterminate them in the 20 Century was gross. Forgetting settlements, she clearly didn’t believe that Israel itself had a right to exist. The fact that she referred to herself as a ‘Semite’ was not her showing solidarity with Jewish people, as the author seems to suggest above. It was a linguistic trick, deprecating Jews for misappropriating the word for themselves. She was a sick and sad case. Had her bigoted rants been aimed at African-Americans, homosexuals or women, she would have been utterly discredited. The fact that she could publicly express such ugly sentiments and then find refuge, redemption and work at the Falls Church News Press should be embarrassing not only for the publisher but for the entire community. It’s like putting a Grand Imperial Wizard on a stump in your town square. Lionizing her in death as a pioneer for women is like penning Mussolini’s obituary and insisting his triumphs with train schedules makes up for that little fascism misunderstanding. At least now the Jewish and righteous people in your community now clearly know where you stand.

    • iamafreeman

      According to you Palestinians should expelled from their land to make way for Jewish people from around the world. sorry that is exactly what happened and continued to happen. Your sick and twisted mind couldn’t see that of course you blame Helen. Blame Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimi Carter and billions around the world. the only ones that stood with you are those people you control in congress and senate as well as the presidency.

      • CarlFromLaurel

        That’s not what happened, of course, but who has time to give you a free history lesson? Spend a few bucks on a Middle East class at your local community college instead. While you’re there it might be a good investment to sign up for a few grammar classes, too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to boss around the president.

        • derbear

          OK, but I don’t need my Mideast course to start 3000 years ago.

        • iamafreeman

          grammar classes you said, you wouldn’t be the first to tell me that. You have to replay in a manner where discussion meant to be discussion rather than diversion from the real story here. If you have elementary knowledge of Palestine, tell me they haven’t expelled from their land. answer line by line to the above comment rather than acting like a jerk.

    • derbear

      Too bad she was right. That’s what she was punished for.

    • Carroll Price

      What Helen Thomas said about Israel and Palestine was true then and is still true today. Which, of course is why the Zionist mafia blackballed her into obscurity, and why they blackball anyone else who dares utter a word of truth concerning Israel’s theft of Palestine.

      • David

        Zionist mafia? You’re a moron.

  • David

    Mr. Benton claims Helen Thomas’s comments were taken out of context. The video of her comments is here, so that people can decide for themselves: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQcQdWBqt14

    To me, it seems a bit odd that the first countries that come to mind when Helen says Israelis (presumably Jewish Israelis) should go the “hell” home are Poland and Germany, given the number that were slaughtered there during the Holocaust. Even if you believe as Mr. Benton does that her words were somehow not anti-Semitic, one wonders why a supposedly objective journalist is weighing in with such a strong opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s hard to imagine with comments like that that she was ever an independently-minded analyst of the situation there. This sort of pseudo-journalism fits in perfectly with what the FCNP serves up each week — opinion pieces with a hard-left slat, masquerading as journalism.

    • derbear

      You sir, are what is wrong with the concept of free speech, a concept which evaporates immediately when someone mentions Israel.

      • Darren Westbrook

        Free speech is the right to present your views free from government restrictions. It isn’t the right for everybody to agree with your views–or even to take them seriously.

      • David

        I’m glad Darren (below) gave you a brief lesson on what “free speech” actually means under the 1A (you probably don’t even know what “1A” means). I fully respect the right of people to criticize Israel. When you tell Israelis to go back to Poland and Germany, I think it’s a bit offensive, don’t you? The next time a journalist tells black people to “go back to Africa,” we’ll see if you raise the free speech defense and support that person continuing to be a journalist.

    • Carroll Price

      You can forget about the hysterical eye-witness hyperbole connected with the holohoax, because all research performed by serious students of history proves that no greater percentage of Jews died during WW 2 than any other minority group.

  • derbear

    The Jewish folk are unforgiving, strictly old testament.

  • Andrew

    I’m confused — is this article about Helen Thomas, or is it about the fact that Nick Benton knew Helen Thomas and is really, really proud of it?

    • D_Wayne_Jones

      Rhetorical Question? Every article is about “he who must not be named.”

      • Andrew

        Fair point — as an infrequent reader, I had forgotten. After all, we’re taking about a guy who created a Wikipedia page for himself.

    • Andrew

      Does Benton patrol comments/threads here? There were at least two responses to this comment a few minutes ago (neither of which cast him in a favorable light), both of which are now gone.

      • D_Wayne_Jones

        Apparently so.

      • don3345

        YES!

      • David

        Yes, he has removed several comments I’ve posted. But Caroll’s comments below, in which she espouses hatred for Jews (as a group only, don’t worry) and denies the Holocaust…those are apparently good to go.

  • Andrew

    “An enlarged picture of Helen and I laughing together hangs in my office. She signed it for me, reading, ‘To Nick, my favorite journalist, with deep appreciation.’”

    How does this belong in a tribute to Helen Thomas? Dude, seriously, if you want to brag about having known Helen Thomas, just come right out and do it. I can’t remember ever reading a more self-serving article!

    • fc-neighbor

      Is there any truth to the rumor that Mr. Benton was seen being taken to a doctor? I understand he dislocated his elbow patting himself on his back.

  • Deamer

    Anyone saying anyting against Israel politicians is label as Anti-Semitic,The only reason is to scare all this people who would have impartial view on racist policies of Israeli Politicians..not a people so if you try to say I am antisemitic I will suw you ass under the same law Obama is using to spy on your computer.
    Further more some of this politicians deser to be tried as War Criminals..

    • David

      There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. I agree that some people are knee-jerk “anti-Semitism” criers. But telling Israelis to go back to the 2 countries where millions of Jews were killed in the ’40s is about anti-Semitism, not an informed analysis of Middle East foreign affairs.

      • Deamer

        I agree with you ” There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Israel ” but since I am not a Arab or Catholic ( Polish christian or Croatian who really believe in blaming a Jews ) I think i have a better view.
        as your self why the most USA media are scared to death evan to publish something like 2 days ago when 5 and 9 years old boys were killed in the back by security Gard in Jerusalem..or any news like that..any logical answers.yep Palestinian Militants are not angels but if someone came to your house ..kick you out from some reason….like you don’t have permit to build that house which is like 200 years old..what would you do ? …with all the guns given to you by US constitution ? what ?

  • donnastensrud

    So good to see a true friend of Helen Thomas. She was a fine human being who will go down in history as a rare, heroic truth teller in the field of American journalism, a job which she gave her life to, which nobody can ever take from her. Rest in peace, Helen.

  • KenFeltman

    Wow! These comments show that some readers are not willing to look at any of Helen Thomas’ positive contributions. Mr. Benton points out two important ones: (1) When asking questions of powerful people, she was fearless, relentless, capable and unusually uncomplicated for a member of the White House press corps; and (2) She plowed ground for women and all minorities in journalism that, without her, might be unplowed yet.

    The first of her positive contributions is well known. She had the ability to take a small fact, a grain of truth, and use it – almost maliciously, it seemed – to flesh out the whole story.

    The second is less appreciated, by women as well as men. She was a mentor and an example. When her colleagues turned on her – so quickly, so finally – how did she feel? At a forum on minorities in the media, three women journalists who benefited from her leadership said that, yes, she felt betrayed and abandoned, but more than that, she felt confused and stunned by the suddenness of her fall.

    On the few occasions that I dealt with Helen Thomas, she was direct, even blunt, but also thoughtful, even kind. In asking Helen Thomas to write for his newspaper, Mr. Benton made a good editorial decision as well as a wise business decision. He did one more thing: He made a person who was suddenly very lonely feel a little less hurt, a little more needed.

    • CarlFromLaurel

      All you have to do to understand why Helen Thomas’ remarks outweigh the good she did is read the comments on this thread. Look at the low level, coarse human beings who agree with her and agree with your publisher’s editorial. When you see yourself at the center of such a gang of morons don’t you stop and question whether you might be occupying the low ground? Apparently, you don’t. You seem to feel at home there instead. Unfortunately, people die because of prejudice like Mrs. Thomas’. Her words deserve to eclipse even a brilliant career which she clearly didn’t have. She’s only been dead a day or two and already there are very few Americans who have ever read a single word she wrote, or who can quote even a sentence from her many decades of near-daily writing. Her whole legacy was in the phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.” It wasn’t much, but now even that is gone since all anyone will ever remember of her is that she was a hater filled with so much bile she suggested that the Jews return to the land of the crematoria. Apparently that delights a lot of people in Falls Church. But don’t take my word for it. Just read this thread, check out the people singing your chorus. You stepped in something with Helen Thomas, and now you’ve got the flies to prove it.

  • Deamer

    I we have a censorship…democratic on this site ?

  • Everett

    Thank you for this. As a relative of hers, I feel much the same way and heard through family that the “anti-Semitic” comment hurt very deeply. I appreciate that you saw her through her last years.

  • Carroll Price

    If Helen Thomas contributed nothing else, she reminded us all that most Jews in Israel came from east Europe. Which means that they have about as much Semitic blood in their veins as I have, which I hope and pray is absolutely none.

  • Josh Marks

    Helen Thomas was an anti-Semitic bigot and Nicholas Benton is either disengenous or ignorant of what Thomas really said about Jews in Israel. Benton said Thomas was talking about Israeli policy of encouraging immigrants to “occupy” the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). That’s not what she said. Thomas said the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Germany and Poland (What about the Israeli Jews from Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Ethiopia? Should they go back too?). Thomas didn’t say the Jews of the West Bank, she said Palestine. That means all of Israel proper, which is the same statements that the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah say about freeing Palestine of the Jews from the river to the sea.

    Then Benton points out that Thomas says she was “semitic” because she is of Lebanese decent so she somehow can’t be ant-semitic. Wow. Beyond ignorant. But Nick conveniently doesn’t mention that in another interview with Joy Behar, Thomas denies that European Jews are semitic people, which is another anti-Semitic canard that attempts to deny Jews the claim to their homeland in the land of Israel. She probably believes the anti-semitic Khazar conversion theory that has been discredited. Again, Thomas uses the same lines about European Jews not being related to the the ancient Jews of Israel that Hamas and Hezbollah use.

    And Thomas can and was an anti-Semite because anti-Semitism is directed at Jews, not Arabs or Phoenicians or Persians or Kurds. The Merriam-Webster definition of anti-Semite: “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”

    At least Helen’s Jew hatred was brought out in the open later in her life. How many others have hatred of Jews deep in their hearts that we may never know about?

    • Carroll Price

      I don’t hate Jews individually, but I sure hate what they, as a group, have done to the human race over the past 5,000 years. For they have, through their vultureistic monetary policies and hateful political ambitions brought about more misery and death to mankind that any all other things combined. What we are starting to see today is history simply repeating itself. Because it appears that every 100 years or so, the common man wakes from his slumbers long enough to figure out who is responsible for screwing him out of everything he ever worked for and simply kicks the bastards out.

      • Darren Westbrook

        I hate anti-semites both individually and as a group.

      • Guest

        That’s what the Nazis said when they were gassing the Jews. They didn’t have each individual Jew, but it was their sacred duty to exterminate them as a race of people. Guess what? We’re still here and now we have a homeland to defend ourselves against anti-Semites like Carroll Price. Why don’t you visit Israel and say those remarks Carroll the coward. You might get an Uzi in your face.

      • Josh Marks

        That’s what the Nazis said when they were gassing the Jews. They didn’t hate each individual Jew, but it was their sacred duty to exterminate them as a race of people. Guess what? We’re still here and now we have a homeland to defend ourselves against anti-Semites like Carroll Price. Why don’t you visit Israel and say those remarks to the six million Jews living there Carroll the coward. You might get an Uzi in your face.

        • Carroll Price

          And just how long do you think your shitty little stolen country last if ignorant Gentiles were not providing military equipment and cash to keep it afloat? And if you can provide a shred of proof that Nazis ever gassed a single Jew, you will have performed a feat that no one else has accomplished. And as to visiting to Israel, I would not lower myself to do it, because I make a point of avoiding imposters who are squatting on stolen property.

          • David

            It tells you something about the FCNP when it censors posts that raise legitimate criticism about the “newspaper” or its editor but allows Carroll’s hate-filled (and uninformed) comments to stand.

            Carroll, I’m sorry that you’re so filled with hatred. I encourage you to visit the Holocaust Museum to see some of the evidence that you’re looking for. Alternatively, you can actually meet and talk to some people who survived the Holocaust — although I think you’re more likely to believe Ahmadinjad than a 90-year old with nothing to gain.

            You complain about Jews’ monetary policies. I assume you’re talking about lending money with interest (since only Jews do that, right?). Will you lend me some money without interest? I promise, I’ll pay it back! It’s a great economic model! Put your money where your mouth is, you lazy ignoramus.

          • Carroll Price

            Even if I was stupid enough to pay money to see the taxpayer supported holohoax museum, they’d throw me out as soon as I started asking embarrassing questions they couldn’t answer. Like if 6 million Jews died between 1942-1945 how could it be possible that 3 million “survivors of death camps” are not only still alive and well, but greedily embezzling money from German people who should have put a stop to it long ago. As to reasonable interest charged on money, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with Jew invented compound interest (better known as usury) where over a 30 year period a person pays back a debt three times. The problem with you parasites is that you can’t make it on your own, and you can’t endure facts and truth, and when faced with either one, resort to temper tantrums designed to intimidate the others into silence. Well, guess what? It ain’t working now, and ain’t gonna work in the future. So go ahead and get used to it.

  • Darren Westbrook

    For an equally fawning elegy, check out the website of Hamas’s “military” wing.

Facebook Iconfacebook like buttonTwitter Icontwitter follow buttonGoogle+Google+