There are almost as many Helen Thomas awards in journalism as there are Robert C. Byrd federal buildings in West Virginia. The Society of Professional Journalists, which gives out the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, describes Thomas as "a living icon of journalism for her dogged pursuit of the truth in a career that has spanned almost 60 years." Thomas's alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit, honors Thomas's "many years of exemplary service" with its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award. The Washington Post's Sally Quinn, a past recipient (with husband Ben Bradlee) of the Helen Thomas Award from the American News Women's Club, writes that "Helen Thomas set the standard for excellence in journalism."
Thomas, who turned 90 in August, became United Press International's White House correspondent in 1961, arriving at the executive mansion with John F. Kennedy, whose campaign she had covered. In 2000 she left UPI to become a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, but she kept her prized frontrow seat in the White House pressroom. She enjoyed her new role as an opinion writer. "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter," she said in a 2002 speech. "Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?'"
By answering that question, she brought her career to an abrupt if long-overdue end. On May 27 Thomas was at the White House's Jewish Heritage Celebration when an amateur journalist, Rabbi David Nesenoff, approached her with a video camera and asked, "Any comments on Israel?"
"Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she replied.
Nesenoff was taken aback: "So where should they go? What should they do?"
"They should go home."
"Where is home?"
"So you're saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?"
"And America, and everywhere else."
A week later, on Thursday, June 3, Nesenoff posted the video on YouTube and his own website, RabbiLive.com. The Drudge Report linked the next day, and the whole world knew. Thomas issued an apology, claiming that her comments "do not reflect my heartfelt belief" in "the need for mutual respect and tolerance." Nobody believed her. Her virulent anti-Israel views were well known, though never before quite so crudely expressed in public. By Monday she was history. It didn't help that on Friday, the Israel Defense Forces had released a tape of a man from a Turkish Islamist group that was running a Gaza-bound flotilla in defiance of Israel's blockade. Ordered to dock at an Israeli port instead, the man radioed back with a chilling echo of Thomas: "Go back to Auschwitz."
Journalism's Beltway big shots mourned their profession's loss. But why? In her later years, Thomas was known chiefly for asking truculent yet meandering questions, such as this one to President Bush in 2006:
Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, had turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your cabinet-former cabinet officers, intelligent people, and so forth. What was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil, quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
At least during the Bush administration, those who sympathized with Thomas's views credited her with asking "tough" questions. But David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and frequent critic of conservatives, got it right when he wrote, in the aftermath of her departure:
A tough question is a question that's hard to answer. But any moderately skilled flack understood precisely how to deflect Helen Thomas' histrionic denunciations....In fact, calling on Helen Thomas was a notorious method for a hard-pressed White House press secretary to evade tough questions from the rest of the press corps. A zany, out-of-left-field protest from Thomas would disrupt a flow of unwelcome queries, maybe spark a tension-breaking laugh, maybe change the subject altogether.
To what, then, did she owe her reputation as a paragon of journalism? Her output as a columnist was banal. In a column on Michelle Obama's antiobesity efforts, Thomas observed: "If a first lady takes an interest in a cause, it will take off in the country. But it won't wipe out fascination with what she is wearing. That's life." Reason's Peter Suderman quipped that "as insights go, this [is] about as original as you win some, you lose some."
DID THOMAS ever break or advance an important story? Offer a penetrating analytical insight? Take a risk on behalf of the public's right to know? If so, nobody remembered. True, she became a journalist at a time when that was arguably an accomplishment for a woman. But being a woman was never an accomplishment for a journalist.
Sally Quinn had this to say in an essay on the Post's website about why Thomas was "a legend":
I spent many a night with Helen and her best pal, Fran Lewine-who just happened to be Jewish and who was another female pioneer in journalism-eating pita bread and hummus and stuffed grape leaves and drinking wine. There was always plenty of wine and laughter. Not only was Helen a great journalist but she loved her friends, loved to have a good time.
Helen had a great personality and some of her best friends were Jewish! This may be the first time in history that these two classic excuses for ugliness have been invoked simultaneously.
In fairness to Quinn, she described Thomas's comments about Israel as "shocking, appalling and indefensible," though she also employed the old Obama dodge: "The person who called for Israel to get out of Palestine is not the Helen Thomas I knew."
By contrast, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift-who has the extraordinary misfortune of having accepted the 2010 Helen Thomas Award from the American News Women's Club on June 3-did attempt a defense of Thomas's invidious remarks: "She was talking about the settlers," Clift insisted, referring to Israelis who live in territory that was occupied by Jordan before 1967. This assertion was laughable. As Nesenoff pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, Thomas was not telling them to go home to Tel Aviv, Haifa, and western Jerusalem.
Even Clift had to admit that there was little to Thomas's "pioneering career" other than longevity: "Woody Allen famously said 90 percent of life is just showing up, and Thomas was there for a huge chunk of history." Then again, so was Rudolf Hess.
As for those awards: Wayne State announced that it would continue to give out the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award, which says a lot about what "diversity" has come to mean in American higher education. Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, did not return my e-mails or phone messages asking if SPJ planned any changes in its award. My call to the American News Women's Club was returned by a woman named Julia. She promised to get back to me with an answer, but never did.
So goes the legend of Helen Thomas: the living icon of journalism whose admirers cannot be reached for comment.