Because of my grown niece, a second wave feminist in a third wave body, I took an interest in Helen Thomas a few years back. Third Wave Niece, a Smith grad, is very into biographies of interesting women who have battled their way through to careers that are characterized by their maleness — journalism, politics, and whatnot. So I purchased a copy of Thomas’s Front Row At The White House: My Life And Times (Scribners, 2000) and read it. A lively account of her career with UPI, it’s a great history of journalism from one woman’s point of view. But it’s also graphic example of all the ways women were locked out of professional life in structural ways until federal legislation, and lawsuits filed under that legislation, literally permitted them in the room. As Thomas (a not particularly ideological feminist) broke down those barriers in political reporting, women streamed in behind her. I remember back in 1979, thinking that we at Oligarch’s college newspaper might just elect the first woman to chair the editorial board less than a decade after women had been admitted to the university at all. It was not to be, and we elected a fine man. But the woman we didn’t elect, and numerous others (including Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post) went on to fine careers in journalism through the doors opened by Thomas and her contemporaries.
But over the years, Thomas — who had a reputation for asking “tough” questions — became less of a reporter than a nostalgic symbol of what journalism used to be. This was particularly the case after she quit UPI and signed on as a columnist for Hearst. She was cultivated by successive White House press secretaries as a kind of mascot and news-granny, an annoying but beloved old cat that is always leaving fur in your favorite chair. Helen asked the tough questions, sure, but because only Helen asked the tough questions, presidents and press secretaries were also able to reply to them as if they were eccentric. Perhaps you remember –as I do — spinmeister Ronald Reagan responding to a much younger Thomas’s questions with an indulgent smile and a “We-e-ell Helen (a-heh-heh-heh) I don’t know whether (a-heh-heh)….”
Now Thomas has, as Jonathan Ferris coined the phrase in And Then We Came To The End, been “made to walk Spanish.” Or rather, she has abruptly retired, after having gone on record as anti-Israel (in a particularly cruel way) with Rabbi David Nesenoff after a White House Jewish heritage event. View the video here courtesy of RabbiLive.com. George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made sure that Thomas’s remarks got out to the mainstream media; Bill Clinton’s former press secretary (talk about a job from hell) Lanny Davis followed Sunday with a statement that “Thomas, who he used to consider a close friend, ‘has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot.’”
Do we think maybe none of these guys really liked Thomas after all? She resigned from Hearst on Monday.
Gone the special chair, the distinctive red dresses, the ritual first question. Of course, what happened was nothing new. As most reports of the incident note, Thomas — the daughter of Lebanese immigrants — has always been a sharp critic of Israel and of U.S. support for Israel’s foreign policy. What pushed things over the edge was not her anti-Israel statements, but her colossal error in judgement in suggesting that the people of Israel “go home” to Germany and Poland. Oh — and to America, which would be a better idea because there weren’t any extermination camps there.
Surely it was a set-up: beware of clerics carrying video cameras, is my advice, and do your best not to say noxious things when you are being taped. I do agree with the many people who are arguing that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh say horrid things in public all the time, and no one is calling for their resignation. Yet if, at the age of 89, Thomas is no longer able to distinguish between suggesting that the descendants of Holocaust survivors return to the site of their ancestors’ murder and appropriately partisan political statements about Israel’s neo-imperialist policies in Gaza and the West Bank, one suspects that it is long past time for her to go.
Why hasn’t someone had the kindness to make that happen before now? Answer: it takes guts to remove an iconic figure. Few people do it, even when they know they should. This is, of course, a common problem in the academy. Venerable professor famous for irascible personality and eclectic remarks goes right over the edge one day and has to be forcibly retired, when in fact the signs of ineffectiveness and mental decline have been clear to close colleagues for several years: inappropriate remarks, fits of rage and/or confusion, memory lapses of gargantuan proportions. And yet, you go to the administration and say, “Hey, I think we have a problem” and administrators claim their hands are tied because of tenure, academic freedom, blah, blah, blah. I have a friend who made this lonesome trek year after year, recounting numerous horror stories that appeared in the teaching evaluations or were related by befuddled students about Famous Professor X, and was repeatedly sent away with a condescending lecture about age discrimination. In one of these meetings, an administrator said to my friend sharply, “Are you a doctor? What makes you think you know what is going on?”
“Oh,” s/he replied casually: “Venerable Professor doesn’t recognize me anymore, and s/he recently asked the administrative assistant who she was and why she was robbing the department office.” Needless to say, nothing happened until said faculty member let loose a blistering stream of muddled hate speech at a stunned group of first-year students who fled the room weeping and dropped the class en masse.
The argument that prim little Ari Fleischer made about ejecting Thomas from the White House press corps is that she has lost her objectivity. The truth is that Thomas has not been objective for years — she has been strongly opinionated, a useful foil who allowed conservatives and neo-liberals alike to articulate themselves against her. That has in many ways made her an asset, especially to conservative presidents, and to a White House press corps that either doesn’t like to ask the hard questions, or doesn’t really care to report or think very hard about the answers. The real problem is that Helen Thomas has lost her good judgment — and while this is not the case for everyone who is 89, we should all see this as a lesson about retiring before we do something awful that allows people to give us the old heave-ho.
But the real moral of the story is for everyone over 50: age narrows most of us more than we can possibly be aware of. It trims away the subtleties and politesse that can make the most extreme things we believe bearable to others. It causes to overestimate our authority, and underestimate the destruction our words cause. It makes us arrogant, because younger people don’t want to tell us that we are finished, even as we become caricatures of ourselves. My advice? Pick a retirement age now and stick to it, knowing that you will get out while people still remember you for the best things that you were. Keith Richards says it better than I ever could: this is for you, Helen.