The sad farewell of Helen Thomas

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A02

Afew months ago, White House reporters settled on a system for preserving the sanctity of Helen Thomas's front-row-center seat in the briefing room. On those frequent occasions when the 89-year-old legend didn't show up for a briefing -- a pardonable event for somebody who has done the job for 50 years -- reporters from other outlets would take turns occupying the seat to deny the prominent perch to less-reputable characters in the room.

But nobody dared take the seat with Thomas's nameplate at Monday morning's briefing. Her desk in the nearby work space was also unoccupied, a laptop open but the screen dark. It was two hours before she would announce her resignation/retirement as a Hearst columnist, but it was already clear that it was time for her to get the hell out.

It was a sad end to a storied career.

You'll find no defense here of her anti-Semitic suggestion that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland and Germany -- where they were slaughtered by the millions. There's no excuse for that, and Thomas deserved what she got.

Yet the White House press corps will be diminished without Helen front and center, and not only because she was in that job before the current president was born. She brought a ferocity to her questioning that has eluded too many in subsequent generations. At a time when others were getting cozy with sources, her crabby, unrelenting hostility was refreshing.

"When are you going to get out of Afghanistan?" she challenged President Obama two weeks ago. "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.' "

Then there was her questioning -- heckling, really -- of 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? . . . 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?"

Think that was rough? Recall her questioning of President George W. Bush in 2006 after he finally ended a long boycott of Thomas questions. "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis," she began. "Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true."

Thomas kept up her harangue as Bush tried to answer, requiring him to plead "Hold on for a second" and "Excuse me, excuse me" and "Excuse me for a second."

Given that history of hostility, it's not surprising that one of the first to push Thomas out the door was Bush's former press secretary, Ari "Watch What They Say" Fleischer, who temporarily left his sports marketing business to hustle over to the Fox News set and demand Thomas's firing. The most recent recipient of Thomas's heckling, Gibbs, used the words "offensive and reprehensible" when asked Monday about the matter.

Even the White House Correspondents' Association piled on with a statement saying it "firmly dissociates itself" from Thomas's words. This was the same group that once feted Thomas (a past president) for her remarkable career. Though she criticized her colleagues, sometimes unfairly, for being too soft on Bush, the WHCA offered to defend her to the White House during Bush's refusal to call on her at news conferences.

Had she retired even a week ago, those would have been the memories. Colleagues would have remembered Obama visiting her with cupcakes in the briefing room and singing "Happy Birthday" to her last August. They would have recalled the late Tony Snow referring to her as "Secretary of State Helen Thomas" or an exasperated Fleischer, during a grilling, saying, "We will temporarily suspend the Q&A portion of today's briefing to bring you this advocacy minute."

Before last week's suggestion that Jews "go home" to places where they were annihilated, Thomas's liberal politics and predictable questions on the Middle East were generally tolerated. Knowing smiles would break out when she would advise Bush not to "keep threatening war every day" or ask of Gibbs, "We go in to kill and maim and send drones -- is that Christianity?"

Those questions take on a darker connotation now. Just before Thomas announced her resignation, the White House Correspondents' Association called a "special meeting" to consider "whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front-row seat" in the briefing room.

But being an "opinion columnist" isn't what got Thomas in trouble; it was her bigoted remark in the White House driveway to a rabbi with a video camera. Now that Helen is gone, there's more need than ever for others in the briefing room to share her opinion -- specifically, the opinion that anybody standing on that podium should be regarded with skepticism.

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