Tuesday, June 8, 2010

To Helen Gone

I was going to sing a rousing chorus of "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead," but my singing leaves something to be desired, and you wouldn't be able to hear me anyway. So I'll have to settle for something less dramatic and much more prosaic. Helen Thomas, the seemingly eternal pain-in-the-nether-regions of the press corps, has finally decided to give us all a moment of peace by retiring.

I first remember seeing her in the early Sixties, and wondering whether she was a comedic plant. Surely, nobody actually took her questioning seriously. She thought of herself as a gadfly, and the liberal press went along with it. She managed to annoy presidents of both parties, largely because her questions were not only disrespectful and disjointed, but also because no president was ever far left enough to suit her (though Jimmy Carter came close).

Dear Helen never learned the difference between speaking the much-beloved "truth to power" and just plain rudeness. She thought that candor and crude attacks were one and the same. She wasn't brutally honest, she was simply brutal. She was convinced that her facts were the only facts, and she had a monopoly on integrity and truth. In fact, she stated questions in the form of opinions, leaving the hapless president of the day either to agree with her, argue with the adult version of a recalcitrant child, or simply give a glib answer and move on before she could continue.

More than one president simply boycotted her at press conferences from time to time. George W. Bush made the mistake of ending his boycott and was handed the following for his generosity: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true." Aside from the fact that she was just plain wrong, that was less a question than a diatribe. What was the president expected to answer?

She continually hectored President Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs. "What's the difference between your foreign policy and Bush's? Why don't you know your position on Glass/Steagall? What are you hiding? Yes or no (to what, I'm not sure)? Why does the president have this audacity of hope for the health plan when it's so clear the perception from yesterday was he struck out?" When asked recently by another reporter of his opinion of Thomas's questioning and her most recent faux pas, Gibbs used only two words--"offensive and reprehensible."

Even the Obamessiah was not spared her wrath. She may have been partially instrumental in his lengthy absence from press conferences, but on his return, the first words out of her mouth were: "When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, 'if we don't go there, they'll all come here." Any experienced lawyer would have objected to the compound, leading and badgering series of questions the old hag was lobbing at him. But Obama is only a pretend lawyer, so he just harrumphed and babbled a bit, and moved on to another reporter's question.

Thomas left her position as an actual credentialed reporter some years back when she took a position with the Hearst publications as an "opinion journalist." Of course her questions were always editorials disguised as reporting, but at least she had a legitimate seat at presidential press conferences. After ceasing to be a reporter, it would have been perfectly acceptable for Bush and Obama simply to have her banned from the conferences. But neither did so, it would seem, largely out of inertia. After all, the 89 year old Thomas became a White House reporter before the current president was born.

None of this was enough to end the ignominious career of this ancient harpy. But her seeming invincibility finally failed recently. Being questioned by a rabbi with a sound camera during the White House Jewish Heritage celebration, the lovely Helen finally did herself in. His question was simple: "Any comments on Israel?" Her response was equally simple: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." OK, that would be bad enough, but she's not alone among the press corps with that opinion. It was the obnoxious and idiotic followup that finally put the wooden stake through her alleged heart.

Laughing demonically, Thomas followed up with: "Remember, these people [the Palestinians} are occupied, and it's their land." So where do the Jews to go after they are forced out of Israel? Thomas replies: "They can go home." The rabbi, astonished at this point, asked "Where is home?" Her answer? "To Poland, and Germany. And America. And everywhere else." Everywhere except Israel ("Palestine"), apparently.

Finally, it was all too much for even her sycophantic buddies in the corps. The White House Correspondents' Association let her have it with "The Association firmly dissociates itself from Thomas's words." Though Thomas had often badgered the Association members for being too soft on Bush, they had previously defended her to the hilt publicly, though the grumbling had started among the members themselves. And though there was no public announcement, the Association called a special meeting to decide if it was appropriate for an "opinion journalist" to have a special front-row seat in the White House briefing room. The revolt was on, and they were no longer going to cover for her outrageous behavior on some lame First Amendment free speech grounds.

These same members had previously been extremely protective of Thomas's special status. She had been at the vast majority of White House press conferences since 1960, first irritating John F. Kennedy and causing the Washington Post to be treated as birdcage liner for some months of the Kennedy administration. As the years wore on, they became so protective of Thomas that when, on one of those rare occasions when she missed a conference, senior reporters would decide who would sit in "her" chair in order to keep out some upstart without her "high stature" with the corps.

But now, that's all folks. Reading the handwriting on the wall (or having it read to her), Thomas announced her retirement on Monday afternoon. Liberal journalists are already extolling her virtues and mourning the loss of a great reporter who made a major mistake at the very end of her career. A reporter for the Washington Post said "It was a sad end to a storied career." But even that reporter also said "there was no excuse for what she did, and Thomas deserved what she got."

I have a slightly different take on her departure. Good riddance to bad rubbish. I've had to listen to her insane ravings for my entire adult life, and some of my teenage life, for that matter. She always reminded me of the crazy lady who lived next door and had way too many cats. Her questions were more like an attack of Tourette Syndrome than responsible reporting.

Still, the White House Monday press conference was a joy to behold if you knew what to look for. Though the formal announcement of Thomas's retirement had not yet come, everyone in the room knew. Unlike the past, this was not a temporary absence, and the timidity of the big deal reporters about anybody occupying the hallowed seat reminded me of a Marx Brothers version of the "missing man" formation. Or maybe musical chairs in which the object is not to find a chair when the music stops, but to make sure it's left empty. They all wanted the seat, but nobody dared to take it.


Notawonk said...

i think after the conference, the more brash reporters took turns quickly sitting in her chair, trying it on for size, only to discover the spirit of helen still resides there. mean old bidy dust: even febreeze can't touch that stuff.

Tennessee Jed said...

She is a great example of being a legend in her own mind. I really don't remember her all that well, but she is also a great example of a so-called "jornalist" who does NOT keep her personal bias out of her questions.

On a slightly different front, Commentarians might be interested Kathy Griffin at 9:00 edt on Bravo. "live from the bible belt" was filmed at the historic Tennessee Theater about a block and a half from my downtown loft. I plan to watch to see the Theater, but also to determine if she is an equal opportunity comic or will only skewer Christians, southerners and conservatives.

StanH said...

I’m with you Lawhawk, I’ve always found her a tiresome old shrew. When Dan Rather was in the White House press corps, you had the Yik & Yak of badgering banality, where somewhere in their predictable lecture, perhaps someone could find a question. Two of the old liberal goats (reporters) are thankfully swept from the stage, and by their own actions...good riddance.

That’s good news with Kitty Kelley, I guess she’ll allow you to stay…ha!

AndrewPrice said...

I've been looking her up ever since Bev mentioned that she had a history of anti-Semitism, and it's pretty interesting. I did not know, for example, that her family is from Syria. In one instance, after an anti-Israeli rant, Ari Fleischer dismissed her comments with "thank you Helen for the Hezbollah view."

Apparently, there have been many instances of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish remarks by her.

Good riddance.

Unknown said...

Patti: Is it just my imagination, or did Thomas look like she was 103 years old when she was in elementary school? I remember in the early 60s wondering what geriatric clinic they found her in. And I'm sure you're right--the odor of sulfur will linger around that chair for decades.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: She was indeed a rumor in her own time. She's such a screwball that sometimes it was hard to make out what her political views were at any given moment. But you could always bet that they were consistently hostile to any exercise of American power.

Unknown said...

Stan: Thanks, and I think Kitty Kelly is adapting reluctantly. She does not seem too pleased with my suggestion of renaming her Opie, however.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Tony Snow took a few jabs at her lofty pretensions, once calling her "Secretary of State Helen Thomas." And Fleischer got in a good shot at one conference when he announced "we will now temporarily suspend the Q&A portion of today's briefing to bring you this advocacy minute," then called on Thomas.

StanH said...

Maybe it’s a gender thing with Kelly, maybe Aunt Bee?

Unknown said...

Stan: I missed the obvious. She objects to a boy's name. I'll give Bea a try, and get back to you.

Unknown said...

Lawhawk--You could always rename her "Daisy," and leave it up to the readers to decide if she's following in the footsteps of Daisy Duke or Daisy Mae (from Li'l Abner).

Unknown said...

CalFed: I assume you're talking about renaming Kitty Kelly and not renaming Helen Thomas. LOL

Joel Farnham said...


I don't think much will change at the Washington press room. It is the press room guys who kept her there.

Have you met with Kitty Kelly's lawyers to see about the viability of changing her name? Or were they left in San Francisco?

Unknown said...

Joel: You figured it out. One of my requirements was that there be no lawyers within fifty miles of my property. On the other hand, Kelly is far more more intelligent and intimidating than her attorneys anyway, so we have decided that she will remain Kelly (although I intend to call her Kountry Kelly behind her back).

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think it would be interesting to gather a collection of her greatest hits -- as well as those of other "unbiased" journalists. I wonder if anyone has done that yet?

Unknown said...

Andrew: I can't imagine that someone as ignominiously quotable as Thomas has not been the subject of a collector somewhere. It would be great to see a full panoply of those quotes. They could be called "The Venom Chronicles."

Miss Kitty Kelly's Attorneys (SF) said...

Dear Mr. LawHawkRFD (f/k/a LawHawkSF):

Our client, Miss Kitty Kelly has informed us of her new address and has instructed us to handle her affairs in San Francisco in her absence. Though she feels hurt that she was not consulted about her temporary change of residence, she is willing to accept her new temporary accommodations with her usual dignity and grace. If she is happy, then we are happy. However it should be noted that if the need should arise, she will be seeking the advise of local counsel. Let's hope she will have no need to consult anyone in the near future.

Yours truly,
Miss Kitty Kelly's attorneys (SF)

BevfromNYC said...

LawHawk, at least Helen is wise enough to accept "retirement" rather than try and justify her comments. And you know, she did not volunteer to retire. Even Jon Stewart skewered her.

Unknown said...

I should have known the lawyers could find us no matter where we went. But at least someone is looking out for Kitty Kelly's interests.

Unknown said...

Bev: I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when she found out the gang that had always either loved her or feared her were ready to make her the central issue in a long-overdue debate over whether opinion journalists should even be allowed to ask questions at a White House press conference, let alone take a front-row seat.

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