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With a Whimper

Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas retires after anti-Semitic outburst

Allison Hoffman
June 07, 2010
Helen Thomas.(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
Helen Thomas.(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Helen Thomas, the 89-year-old doyenne of the White House press corps, has announced her retirement, effective immediately, after sparking a furor with a YouTube rant about how Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to “Poland, Germany” and other countries.

Thomas’s rant was occasioned by an encounter with Rabbi David Nesenoff, who waved down Thomas outside the White House briefing room before last month’s Jewish Heritage reception for what he expected to be a polite, smiling quip about Israel for his camera. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas told Nesenoff, with a flippant laugh. “Any better comments?” Nesenoff replied, still jovial. “Remember these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland,” Thomas continued. “So what should they do?” Nesenoff asked. “They can go home!” Where, exactly, was that? “Poland. Germany,” Thomas explained. “And America, and everywhere else.”

Footage of the rant was posted late last Thursday on YouTube, where it attracted more than a million views, and unleashed a tempest in Washington, with former Clinton counsel Lanny Davis and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer publicly criticizing her remarks as hateful and anti-Semitic. Thomas posted a brief apology on her Web site Friday, conveying regrets and expressing her “heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.” This morning, Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz reported that she had told him she was “very sorry” for her remarks. “I think I crossed the line,” Kurtz quoted Thomas as telling him. “I made a mistake.” In a public statement today, the White House Correspondents association called Thomas’s comments “indefensible.”

It remains unclear whether Thomas thinks that her mistake was in suggesting that Jews should vacate Israel, or in saying so to a videographer. Her views on the Middle East conflict, indeed, are no secret: just last week, she tore into White House spokesman Robert Gibbs after Israeli commandos killed nine people in the raid on Turkish ships bound for Gaza, calling the episode “a deliberate massacre, an international crime.” Last year, after Obama stopped by the press room with cupcakes to celebrate Thomas’s 89th birthday—the same day as his 48th—she told a reporter for Haaretz that she thought “the average Israeli is very fine, very fair, and straightforward, but I think their treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem, where they continue to take their land, is wrong.” And, she added, “American Zionists certainly expect us to back up anything Israel does.”

Thomas’s tough questioning of the Bush administration over the Iraq war won her a new generation of fans, including many American Jews, and her legendary bluntness was recently captured in a 2008 HBO documentary, Thank You, Mr. President, that celebrated her journalistic credo, “If we don’t ask the tough questions, then they won’t get asked.” But Rabbi Nesenoff is hardly an important American public official, and her uninflected rant against Israel’s Jewish inhabitants seemed not a question, but rather a statement of deeply held beliefs that puts her in the company of racists like former Virginia Governor George Allen, of the infamous macaca joke, or radio shock jock Don Imus, who referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s.” After MSNBC suspended Imus, then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama said he’d have gone further: “I would also say there’s nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group.”

Lanny Davis, the former White House counsel during the Clinton years who now blogs for the Huffington Post, turned the lens on Thomas’s colleagues, some of whom initially shrugged off Thomas’s comments. “Helen Thomas, who I used to consider a close friend and who I used to respect, has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot,” Davis wrote in a widely disseminated statement. While he insisted that Thomas “has a right to criticize Israel and that is not the same as being an anti-Semite,” Davis pointed out that Thomas’s comments went beyond criticism to statements that echoed old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews being aliens in the land of Israel and which would clearly be unacceptable if uttered about any other ethnic group. “If she had asked all Blacks to go back to Africa, what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials,” Davis wondered, “much less a privileged honorary seat?”

The initial public response from other White House correspondents was to suggest that Thomas is simply a harmless old coot. “Do you have an older relative who says crazy things?” MSNBC host Chuck Todd asked on Twitter. The association’s president, Bloomberg’s Edwin Chen, told Politico yesterday that he thought “policing the views of opinion columnists can start us all down a path that history suggests is best avoided.” Yet, while there is no shortage of opinion columnists and radio commentators who have been fired for airing racist views, history records no other example of someone airing similar views while retaining a front-row seat at White House press conferences.

Taking Thomas’s comments as evidence of senility also seems unfair, given her long history of outspoken support for the Palestinian national cause, and attacks on Israel. As the daughter of Lebanese Christian immigrants, she has never been shy about broadcasting her sympathies for the Arab world, which she once described to a Lebanese-American monthly as “the cradle of all religions.” Thomas does have some supporters among elements of the American Jewish community. After Obama gave a prime-time press conference about the economy, the commentator M.J. Rosenberg thanked Thomas for prodding the president to publicly acknowledge Israel’s nuclear capabilities. “I salute Helen Thomas,” Rosenberg wrote.

Chen’s predecessor as President of the White House Correspondent’s Association, ABC News’ Ann Compton, had said that any punishment of Thomas would be up to Hearst, not the Association—which presumably implied that Thomas would continue to occupy her traditional front-row seat at the White House , with all the uncomfortable symbolism that her presence would have entailed. Hearst, in turn, suggested that it was satisfied by Thomas’s ambiguous apology—if that’s what it was. “We deeply regret Helen Thomas’ remarks, which in no way reflect the views of Hearst Newspapers or its employees,” a company spokeswoman said in an email. “Helen has expressed her own profound regret over the incident.” By Monday morning, the toughest public consequences had come from a Bethesda high school, which rescinded its invitation for Thomas to appear as a commencement speaker. She was also dropped by her agent, Diane Nine, and the co-author of her most recent book, Craig Crawford, said he won’t work with her again.

Surprisingly, the Anti-Defamation League—which remained silent on the issue until late Sunday—did not call for Thomas to be fired. “We believe Thomas needs to make a more forceful and sincere apology for the pain her remarks have caused,” the group’s director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement. Thomas absented herself from this morning’s press briefing, where White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Thomas’ remarks “offensive and reprehensible”—and added that he didn’t believe they reflected the views of “most of the people in here, and certainly not of the Administration.”

In a meeting on Monday morning, the White House Correspondents Association board condemned Thomas’s remarks as “indefensible” despite earlier statements from its president, Chen, and some of its more prominent members, who initially said Thomas alone was responsible for what came out of her mouth. While noting that the Association does not police the speech of its members, it also said that Thomas’ offensive remarks did raise the question of “whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room.” Thomas announced her retirement moments later in a statement issued by Hearst.

As for Nesenoff, the rabbi whose question precipitated Thomas’s public implosion, the correspondent’s behavior still seems unforgivable. “Can someone be rehabilitated, can someone do teshuva? Yes, but not overnight,” Nesenoff told Tablet. “It’s not just saying I’m sorry. One has to return what was stolen.” He stopped and explained that his teenage son Adam had accompanied him to Washington, and been present for the video interview. “He’s been in every state except five,” Nesenoff said, “but he’d never heard such anti-Semitism until he got to the White House lawn.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.

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