I had a long dinner with Helen Thomas in Washington nine years ago, a few weeks before Sept. 11.
She was in a good mood. She told me she was finally getting used to writing a column, something that had been a bit of a transition after half a century of straight news reporting for United Press International.
“With UPI, I always kept my opinions out of the story,” she said. That was the way it was all those years in the front row at those presidential press conferences. She was famous for penetrating and sharply focused questions.
But she played it straight. That was her job until she resigned from UPI in 2000, after it was sold to Sun Myung Moon’s News World Communications. Helen Thomas wasn’t about to work for the Moonies. So she wished them “good stories and happy landings.”
“I never thought I’d work again,” she told me. Then the phone rang. It was Hearst Newspapers, which wanted her to write a column. “I was so thrilled.” But could she make the transition to expressing her own opinions in print?
“When I worked for a wire service, I was careful of every word, every verb,” she said. “I really wanted to walk that line [of objectivity] and now I am asked to push the edge. If I write something, it has to have a point of view. I found – I still find it difficult,” but, she said, “I am getting the hang of it – and it’s kind of fun.”
These days, Helen Thomas doesn’t seem to be having fun.
She clearly managed to overcome her inhibitions about expressing her point of view – possibly too well, especially in front of a microphone.
As the years went by, her columns became more strident, and Helen became more of an angry scold. Her colleagues were increasingly bothered by her adversarial line of questioning – though in truth, more of them ought to have been asking some of the questions Helen was asking about Iraq, and the reasons for going to war.
Then, last May, disaster.
Helen Thomas was effectively fired by Hearst after she told a blogger with a video camera that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” and go back to “Germany, Poland, America, and everywhere else.” She apologized, but it was too late.
It wasn’t clear exactly what she had meant. Clearly, her reference to Germany and Poland was tasteless and evoked memories of the Holocaust.
But did she mean Israel itself didn’t have any right to exist – or just that it should vacate the occupied territories?
Helen Thomas laid low for awhile. But last week, she told a forum in Dearborn, Mich., that “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question. We’re being pushed into a wrong direction in every way.”
With that, her alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit, ended its annual Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award. A spokesman for the school said it “strongly condemns” her remarks.
Helen Thomas fired back at the school, saying its leaders had disgraced themselves and “betrayed academic freedom.” Various Arab-American institutions denounced the university for ending the award, and tried to use that action for their own agendas.
No matter your politics, this is very sad. The Helen Thomas who ranted about “Zionists” on that cold December day was not easy to like or admire, even if she is 90 years old, tiny, frail, and in poor health.
What is even sadder is that this is how she is likely to be remembered. Especially if she keeps it up, and allows herself to be used as a pawn by groups whose aims may not really be hers.
But there was once another Helen Thomas: a working-class daughter of Lebanese immigrants, who didn’t listen when people told her that women couldn’t cover Washington.
That Helen Thomas became the first woman ever to be White House bureau chief for a major news organization, and she held the job for decades. That Helen Thomas covered John F. Kennedy and got Watergate scoops from Martha Mitchell.
She was the first woman member of the National Press Club, and broke through ceiling after glass ceiling in the nation’s capital.
I saw that Helen Thomas at dinner that summer, when she was happy and seemed much younger than her then-81 years. “I love my work,” she said. “I am the luckiest girl in the world. Make that woman.”
There were things about the George W. Bush presidency she did not like. “I’m a liberal,” she said. “Absolutely. Am I supposed to be ashamed about caring whether the sick and maimed are taken care of?”
But she said nothing hateful about anyone. Instead, she said she hoped to keep doing what she was doing until she died.
“I wake up every morning and go to work with a sense of great excitement,” she said. “The great joy of journalism is that it is an education every day. You have to keep learning, and you can never let up.”
That’s the Helen Thomas that maybe we can someday again remember.
This column was originally published in the Toledo Blade on Dec. 10, 2010.