The picture does say it all: There’s Helen Thomas, in 1968, the sole female reporter circled by 21 male reporters questioning President Lyndon Johnson about the Vietnam War. No, wait! There appears to be two other woman reporters there, but only the top of one’s head and a glimpse of her face is visible in the sea of men; the other, also barely visible, is standing at the very back.
Whereas Helen Thomas — her hair in a Lady Bird-ish black, back-combed short ‘do — is so front-and-center, so close to the embattled president, her expression and the cock of her head giving no doubt that she is lacing into him in that way that made her famous (and essential) through the course of nine presidencies — the photo almost seems art directed.
But if that picture, chosen in the New York Times’ obituary of the “barrier-busting” UPI and Hearst reporter, says it all, so, too, in a sadly contradictory way, does the small blurb that the Times chose for the obituary in its online edition: “Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, but her career ended ignominiously over remarks she made about Jews.”
There is something Shakespearean in the fact that a woman who worked so singularly, so aggressively, and for so long in a field — serious news reporting — that was inhospitable to women when she entered it (in 1943) and who was, among many other firsts, the first female president of the White House Press Association, would be so near-exclusively defined, by the most important venue in her profession, by an ugly utterance (not meant for public consumption but recorded and disseminated), made at the very end of her distinguished career. All that good work, all that hard work, all that barrier-breaking — for all those decades — and, in the end, to be reduced to this?
Helen Thomas resigned from Hearst immediately after — in 2010 — the remarks (which I’m not going to repeat because the point of this essay is that she’s been over-tarred by them) were made public, and she resigned while simultaneously apologizing. She did not put up a fight. She was in her 80s — more than an appropriate age to want to stop working. Her apology had a slightly churlish aspect to it. But she didn’t get huffy about the need to resign or apologize.
She didn’t sue or fulminate or demand to get back into the game to clear her name (and, as others have in such situations, make some bucks). It’s not entirely dissimilar to the recent saga of Paula Deen: stripped — rightly, many people believe — of her television, magazine and publishing contracts while apologizing. Apologizing insincerely — with agenda showing and foot in mouth? Perhaps. But dumped while apologizing nonetheless. And leaving it at that rather than running after the apology-orderers and grabbing them by the throat and not giving up.
Compare both cases to the aftermath of Don Imus’s reprehensible use of the term “nappy headed hos” to describe the women of the Rutgers women’s basketball team (whose captain, Essence Carson, eloquently said that that remark “robbed us of a moment of grace”).
Imus, of course, did not go quietly into the night. He sloughed it off, was defended by people like Pat Buchanan (which kind of speaks for itself); then, smelling the coffee, he apologized. Then he had a PR wet kiss of an apology meeting with the women’s basketball team itself (they accepted his apology) — at Drumthwacket, New Jersey’s version of the White House, no less. In fact, in a Tom Wolfe-ian touch, Gov. Jon Corzine was punished for Imus’s sins. The now hugely disgraced but at that moment unbowed then-governor got injured in a car accident while rushing to that meeting of Imus and the team, and some of the ire that might have gone to Imus went to Corzine, for not wearing his seatbelt. (Corzine promptly apologized for that.).
Imus was suspended from his radio station, then terminated. But quickly — very quickly — he sued for wrongful termination and CBS nervously settled the suit in Imus’s favor. (The only one of the women on the basketball team who sued Imus, for defamation and libel, had her suit dismissed.) Imus is still on the air.
As is Rush Limbaugh, who famously called activist Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and a “slut” two years ago. Mel Gibson’s refusals to apologize to the Jewish community for his frequent outbursts of anti-semitism (and his rather horrifying virtual threat to Diane Sawyer — “Don’t go there, Diane…” — when Sawyer, in a televised interview, asked him about his aggressively Holocaust-denying father, Hutton Gibson) didn’t keep him from sitting next to honoree Jodie Foster, who loves to tell interviewers that she adores him, at the Golden Globes last year.
Foster’s speech that night garnered more criticism, for its less-than-forthright acknowledgement of her homosexuality, than Gibson’s appearance in a seat of honor did.
And today: literally, this very day, Al Sharpton — who has his own MSNBC show, among many other platforms — is spear-heading Justice for Trayvon Martin marches in 100 cities. All that status as an august and influential peacemaker — and yet Sharpton has gone on the record saying he will never apologize for the 1987 Tawana Brawley hoax. He has never apologized for two disgraces (one criminal) in the 1990s: his group’s involvement in an anti-Semitic arson and riot in Harlem (“Burn the Jew store down,” was one chant) that killed eight people; and or saying, when he arrived in Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots: “I am in hell. I’m in Israel.” (That latter I distinctly remember seeing and hearing, in real time, on TV.)
When I think of Helen Thomas simultaneously bringing herself down and being brought down at the end of her distinguished career, and then not putting up any kind of a fight, my mind — taking wild liberties — somehow races to far more melodramatic situations: Madeira School headmistress Jean Harris, she of the long and impeccable life of steely integrity — shooting her unfaithful lover Herman Tarnower to death and then immediately surrendering and insisting on pleading guilty.
Or the character Marlene Dietrich played in “Witness for the Prosecution,” who, with stunning sophistication and loyalty, worked up a byzantine scheme to get her unfaithful husband acquitted of murder, only to end up being arrested for perjury for doing so. There’s little in common except for that pulsing irony, underscored by a fierce, even fanatical, integrity: I’ve done all this — and then for this to happen, for me to be defined and to define myself this way, at the end?
Did Helen Thomas not put up a fight because she believed (whether cynically and with bias — or not) that it was futile to do so? Or: Because she was bone-tired? Or: Because she had given at the office of toughness, of holding others’ feet — U.S. presidents’ feet — to the fire, and felt that she’d earned the right to let her own toughened soles rest on the simmering, she-could-take-it coals?
Or had she seen enough lying and sucking up, enough favor-trading and corruption and gooey PR face-saving — and, mostly, been sufficiently repulsed by chip-missing egotists operating, successfully, on 100% bullishness and zero shame and humility…to simply say: No thanks?
If either of the latter, I like her for doing what a man would not.
And, notwithstanding that one ugly remark she made (and it was ugly), I salute her for all the doors she opened and all the inspiring things she did and stood for, to the tremendous benefit of the women who came after her in the media arts and in all fields.
Rest in peace.
Sheila Weller is an award-winning magazine journalist and the author of six books, including 2008′s New York Times bestseller “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — And the Journey of a Generation.” She is currently working on “The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour — and the Triumph of Women in TV News.”