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The Sins of Helen Thomas

The personal overshadowed the professional

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President Jimmy Carter and press secretary Jody Powell, right, talk with reporters Helen Thomas, center, and Sam Donaldson, left, on Air Force One in 1979.(AP)

The death of longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas was front page news yesterday on the Sunday Times. Since her death at 92 was announced on Saturday, obituaries for Thomas have, by and large, distilled her legacy down to her five decades of groundbreaking work–describing her as an upstart whose tough questions made her the scourge of presidents, and a pioneer. After all, she was the “first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first to serve as its president.” She was the only reporter who went to China with Richard Nixon and she was first woman to be elected to the Gridiron Club, a group that, until that point, had epitomized the very boys’ club nature of the journalism game.

If you caught the HBO documentary Thank You, Mr. President, released before her precipitous fall from grace in 2010, then you likely saw footage of countless American presidents paying homage to Thomas in life, which ultimately meant that in death, she would likely receive the same treatment.

Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Helen Thomas. 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. Our thoughts are with Helen’s family, her friends, and the colleagues who respected her so deeply.

Had Thomas retired in 2009, that would be the story. But in 2010, Thomas, when asked her views on Israel, infamously told a reporter (of sorts) that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” Where would they go? Back to Germany and Poland, she suggested, the very countries where millions had been murdered while Thomas was starting out as a radio reporter for United Press. Thomas resigned almost immediately after the controversy.

For some, this outburst was irrefutable proof that her recalcitrance had real venom behind it. As Dave Weigel noted, prior to 2010, Thomas was already not well-liked by conservatives.

Conservatives generally ignored Thomas’s symbolism and remember the last years of her journalism. As David Folkenflik remembers in his obituary, the 2000 collapse of UPI and its purchase by the Moonies inspired Thomas to skeddadle, and to become a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. In her 80s, and as George W. Bush took office, Thomas was as hard-working as ever but she was no longer a straight news reporter. She was an icon who was allowed, from the front row, to broadcast her opinion.

Thomas did play in an important role in the American discourse, particularly as a rare member of the media who resisted compliance with the inexorable American tumble into the Second Iraq War. But her 2010 remarks made her a pariah in circles that transcend political affiliation. And, in a particularly vile interview with Playboy following her “retirement,” Thomas doubled down on those sentiments.

Nevertheless, the tributes pour in, some self-aggrandizing, others modulated to account for Thomas’ later sins. Then there was Hamas, which thanked her “for taking a stand.”

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The Sins of Helen Thomas

The personal overshadowed the professional

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