You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, as they say. Some people don’t — Dan Rather comes to mind, or Senators Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy. Then there is Helen Thomas, called by admirers “the First Lady of the Press” and, by the World Almanac, “one of the 25 most influential women in America.” You will not be surprised to hear that she is also blatantly liberal in her every point of view.
At age 82, Ms. Thomas is the “most senior member of the White House press corps.” She’s been at it since JFK was president. She spent 57 years as White House correspondent for United Press International. She went to China with President Nixon; she has written several books; she has long sat on the front row at the White House; and it was she who closed press conferences with the traditional “thank you, Mr. President.”
Not a bad career — one that should be enough to do any octogenarian proud. But after leaving UPI in protest, Ms. T. did not rest. Instead she headed for Hearst News Service, from which she pens scathing columns about everything related to the Bush administration. According to Jack Shafer of Slate magazine, only a couple of Hearst papers publish her pieces with any regularity.
We will get to those columns shortly, but first let’s consider Helen Thomas the questioner in the front row. A recent exchange with Press Secretary Tony Snow made news. Ms. T’s subject was the appointment of Karl Zinsmeister as presidential domestic policy advisor, and, calling Zinsmeister “so contemptible [sic] of the public servants in Washington,” she inquired repeatedly as to why he was appointed and whether Tony Snow agreed with Zinsmeister’s “pure contempt.”
This is nothing new. In 2002 it was Admiral John Poindexter who was in her sights as “associated with the dark side of the Iran-Contra scandal.” Here are some other gems:
“Why does the president want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?”
(To the president) “Why do you refuse to accept the wall between church and state?” Or “Are [your corporate donors] more important than the American people’s health and safety?”
And best: (to the press secretary) “Does the president think he should obey the law?”
These are not the questions of a serious person. They are not questions at all, in fact, but absurdities with a question mark. The real question becomes: why does a woman once considered the grande dame of liberal journalism stay on only to make herself so irrelevant and foolish? Embarrassingly, the title of Helen’s latest book is Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House. Spare me.
Back to Jack Shafer of Slate: “When [former White House press secretary Ari] Fleischer calls on her, he hopes she’ll heckle him and savage Bush with her eccentric, combative, accusatory, and unreasonably phrased questions — because they’re so easily evaded. ‘We will temporarily suspend the Q & A portion of today’s briefing to bring you this advocacy minute,’ Fleischer responded to a line of Thomas questioning….The moment of comic relief lifts Fleischer and soils Thomas.” These are the comments of a writer with good liberal credentials. Sad.
Now for those columns, where the beat goes on. “Lap Dogs of the Press” declares that the media does not question Bush enough — they should be more like Helen. In “Bush acting as Imperial President” H.T. explains “…he [Bush] has the nerve to tell other people that they should get rid of their current leaders.” (Would that be the Taliban and Saddam?) Nor are “the great constitutional law experts” protesting — like Helen is. In another she lists the sins of a favorite bete noir, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: he helped found the Project for the New American Century; he “strutted” at news conferences; he “alienated France and Germany” — and he must go. Yet another column calls the USA a “laughing stock” for “rejecting” the election of Hamas in Palestine. (Palestine good; Israel bad — always). Just one more: “Snow Dispenses Storm of Spin.” Here Ms. T. reports, “After asking [current White House Press Secretary Tony] Snow how he was going to make this administration more credible…I persisted: ‘Are you always going to tell the truth?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. Where have I heard that before?” (So much for that lyin’ Tony Snow.)
In 2002 Thomas told a college audience, “I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, who do I hate today?”
Hate is not much of a recipe for living, or for questioning, writing, instructing, or enlightening for that matter. Once again, Jack Shafer: “Which brings us to the saddest part of Thomas’ decline: She often raises serious questions that are on lots of people’s minds — questions that other critical journalists in the press corps might want to pose. But when spoken by Thomas’ lecturing lips first, the questions sound absurd. She ends up taking the air out of the room for intelligent criticism of the president and helps make the press corps look like a Saturday Night Live skit.” And those are the words of a fellow liberal.
Enough, Ms. T.! You’ve had a great run, but you’re not holding ’em any longer. It’s time to fold ’em.
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