I am Jewish. As a combat Navy veteran of World War II, I think America’s ties with Israel are important to the future of our nation. I was angered by Thomas’s diatribe that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine”and go home to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”
I agree with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs that Ms. Thomas”s words were “offensive and reprehensible.”
And yet I believe we should not forget the important contributions Ms. Thomas has made to journalism.
Helen Thomas and I met during the hostage crisis in the 1970s. We found, as we developed a friendship, that we saw eye to eye on what the function of a reporter covering government should be: to hold the feet of officials to the fire, to scrutinize the operations of government and protect the public against fraud and corruption.
We live in a world where, more and more, the press is regimented. In Washington and New York, there is a tendency on the part of chief executives to keep us at bay by rigorous rules. Some reporters are reluctant to ask tough questions for fear of being denied access. I call it the era of “rope line journalism.”
Helen Thomas never had that problem. She was never afraid to confront Presidents with the toughest questions imaginable. She believed that was her job.
She was the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, one of nine children. And, starting in 1943, she worked for the United Press. She was a trailblazer, the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association. She cleared the way for many women to pursue careers in journalism.
Perhaps it was her Lebanese ancestry that impelled her intemperate remarks the other day. I remember how upset she was a few years ago by the unrest and bloodshed in Lebanon.
I don’t believe she is anti-Semitic. I am inclined to accept as sincere her apology: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.”
Helen Thomas spoke truth to power. She took to heart the journalistic mission: to cover the news fairly. But she was never obsequious. She won the respect of her colleagues and of Presidents starting with Kennedy because she hammered them all.
Most recently Ms. Thomas went after the Bush administration on the Iraq War, noting again and again that no weapons of mass destruction had been found, and, therefore, a prime justification for that war did not exist.
She traveled around the world several times with Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. She asked pointed questions of President Obama and his press secretary in the early years of the current administration. In her book, “Watchdogs of Democracy,” Thomas laments, as the book’s subtitle says, “The waning Washington press corps and how it has failed the public.”
To the extent that Helen Thomas has represented the tradition of watchdog journalism that goes back to the foundation of this republic, she deserves respect. Our democracy needs more watchdogs and fewer lap dogs.