In the movie Animal House, the Deltas are put on trial for their antics. When offered a chance to defend themselves, the best argument the fraternity’s president can come up with is, “But sir, Delta Tau Chi has a long tradition of existence both to its members and the community at large.”
The line came to mind as I read through the obituaries for Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent for UPI and, for a decade, a left-wing columnist for the Hearst newspapers.
Thomas did help break down the barriers to women in the D.C. press corps. “Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell wrote on Twitter. Obviously, it’s an exaggeration to suggest that women wouldn’t have made so many worthwhile gains in journalism were it not for Thomas. But she was the first female member of a lot of clubs, and that counts for something.
So it was no surprise that the encomiums poured forth in response to the news. From President Obama, the Gridiron Club, the White House Correspondents’ Association, Hamas.
Hamas was less interested in Thomas’s role as a path-breaking feminist icon than in the fact that, at a 2010 White House Jewish heritage event, she growled into a camera that the Jews should “get the hell out” of Israel (or “Palestine” in her telling) and go back to Poland, Germany, and America. That statement, cheered by Hezbollah at the time, was too much for Hearst, which quickly ushered her off to retirement, where she cultivated her status as a truth-teller martyred by the Zionists who control everything in America.
In most obituaries, this incident comes out of the blue, often chalked up to the fact that her parents were Lebanese immigrants (an odd slap at Lebanese Americans). There’s no mention of the fact that her hatred of Israel — and of supporters of Israel — was a constant for most of her career.
Indeed, if you go back and look at many of her famously tough questions of U.S. presidents and press secretaries with that in mind, what seems to many as skepticism about U.S. foreign policy is better understood as special pleading for Israel’s enemies. “Thank God for Hezbollah,” Thomas told a CNN cameraman in 2002, according to the Washington Post. Israel, she added, was responsible for “99 percent of all this terrorism.” Her first question of President Obama referred to members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban as “so-called terrorists.”
Ironically, her views on Israel made the woman who knocked down doors quite eager to lock them behind her. It was widely rumored — and reported by Slate magazine — that she kept pro-Israel New York Times columnist Bill Safire out of the Gridiron Club for years until he turned 70. When Slate asked her about this, she replied, “I don’t think I’ll talk to you anymore,” and hung up.
Thomas spent much of her career as the “epitome of a wire-service stenographer,” then–New Republic writer Jonathan Chait wrote in 2006. Contrary to this myth of the dogged journalist, she wrote mostly puff pieces — about Democratic presidents. She only became a left-wing icon when, as a columnist, she started ranting at the George W. Bush White House.
Indeed, NPR’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik, observed in his obituary that Thomas “put a premium on shoe-leather reporting out of view.” He fails to mention any stories Thomas actually broke.
The New York Times managed to identify a scoop: her reports of her phone conversations with Martha Mitchell, the emotionally disturbed wife of Watergate-era attorney general John Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell had a habit — owing in part to her reported alcoholism — of getting drunk and telephoning whoever would listen to her rants. Most reporters stopped exploiting Mitchell once it became clear how ill the woman was. Not Thomas. She happily transcribed the calls, even reporting how Mitchell’s young daughter was begging her mother to get off the phone with Thomas. “Don’t talk to her, she’s no friend.”
Still, as time went by, the awards poured in as Thomas became a Washington institution, with cameos in Hollywood movies and even The Simpsons. But the “odd thing about her awards and citations,” Chait noted, “is that they almost never mention any specific contributions she has made to journalism save for being female and, well, old.”
Or as journalist Andrew Ferguson once put it, “Everybody admires Helen, though nobody can tell you why.”
The best answer I can come up with: She had a long tradition of existence.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.