This week veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas announced her sudden “retirement.” The source was an insight shared by Thomas outside the White House during a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration. Asked about her feelings toward Jews and Israel, the 89-year-old conscience of the White House press corps opined that the Palestinian people “are occupied” by Jews, and that “Palestine” is “their land” and Israelis ought to “go home” to Poland, Germany, “and everywhere else.” More pointedly, Thomas averred that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” (Click here for video.)
Thomas’s statements are obscene in their historical, political, and moral ignorance and callousness. Jews, of course, lived in those areas prior to the founding of the modern nation-state of Israel. In fact, in large part because of what happened to Jews in those areas—“liquidation” by Hitler—Israel was created in May 1948. Thomas, more than any member of the White House press corps, should know this, as she actually lived through the tragic history.
No matter. Thomas believes what she believes, and now no longer works for Hearst Corporation, which responded by announcing her “retirement”—“effective immediately.”
I won’t dance on Thomas’s grave. I’m fascinated, however, by her colleagues’ sudden disapproval. In truth, Helen Thomas has been saying outrageous things for years. When she insulted Republican presidents like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, liberals hailed her as “dean of White House correspondents,” deserving of the opening question at press conferences. They adored her when she was a walking, talking Nickelodeon snapping at conservatives. Here are two memorable examples:
In his first week in office, George W. Bush launched his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, providing federal money to local “helpers and healers.” Importantly, these faith-based organizations were prohibited from proselytizing; they could assist the needy, but couldn’t seek to convert them to a particular faith. Precisely because of that prohibition, many conservatives rejected the concept, fearing that it neutered these organizations.
But that wasn’t how Helen Thomas saw it, as she made clear to the new president in his first press conference:
Thomas: Mr. President, why do you refuse to respect the wall between the church and state? And you know that the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter. I mean, the very fact that our country has stood in good stead by having the separation—why do you break it down?
Bush: Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state----
Thomas: Well, you wouldn’t have a religious office in the White House if you did…. [Y]ou are a secular official…. [A]nd not a missionary.
To Helen Thomas, Bush had created not an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, but an Office of Christian Apologetics and Crusading.
Another unforgettable Thomas moment—much more damaging—occurred two decades earlier at a Reagan press conference. At issue was the Strategic Defense Initiative, which, we now know, terrified the Soviets, and was decisive in the Soviet collapse. Thomas, however, saw SDI as a target for ridicule. Quite unprofessionally, she seized Senator Ted Kennedy’s pejorative for the system: “Star Wars.”
To this day, the damage caused by that term isn’t appreciated. Ronald Reagan found that the Soviets employed the language to suggest that Reagan desired not a defensive system but an offensive system to launch war in space. Reagan privately complained that he “bristled” each time the media used the label. Here’s an exchange with Helen Thomas:
Thomas: Mr. President, if you are flexible, are you willing to trade off research on “Star Wars” … or are you against any negotiations on “Star Wars”?
Reagan: Well, let me say, what has been called “Star Wars”—and, Helen, I wish whoever coined that expression would take it back again—
Thomas: Well, Strategic Defense—
Reagan: —because it gives a false impression of what it is we’re talking about.
Thomas immediately rebuffed the president: “even if you don’t like the term, it’s quite popular.”
Reagan’s request was reasonable: the program’s name was the Strategic Defense Initiative. Professional reporters should use its proper name, not a name of political derision.
Of course, the Soviets were elated. From Pravda to Izvestia, they ran with the label. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, adopted it, commending the likes of Thomas (and Kennedy) for “getting it right” on SDI, for calling Reagan’s “bluff.” It was a coup for the Kremlin, a gem of a propaganda tool. (For an analysis, click here.)
Similarly, Helen Thomas’s recent comments—on Israel—again thrilled the enemy. In calling for Jews to leave Israel, Thomas (no exaggeration) toed the party line of Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, of Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That’s a dubious achievement for the dean of White House correspondents. I’m impressed that her liberal colleagues are finally offended.
— Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. For an extended analysis of the American media, the Soviet media, and “Star Wars,” see his book "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism."