washingtonpost.com
Helen Thomas, tarnished icon

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; 7:25 AM

Helen Thomas ended a storied career at the White House dating back to the Kennedy era on Monday, days after making inflammatory remarks on Israel to a rabbi with a video camera.

"Frankly, I was shocked," said Rabbi David Nesenoff, who was at the White House for a Jewish heritage celebration on May 27 and simply asked the Hearst Newspapers columnist, "Any comments on Israel?" Her response -- that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany, Poland and America -- triggered a wave of denunciations that a narrowly worded apology did little to quell.

"This was vile, a paradigm of hate talk," said Nesenoff, who was accompanied by his 17-year-old son and a friend. "She felt comfortable saying this in front of two boys with yarmulkes on."

While the 89-year-old Thomas is renowned as a trailblazer who aggressively questioned 10 presidents -- including President Obama, whom she pressed last month on Afghanistan -- her hostility toward Israel has been no secret within the Beltway. Though she gave up her correspondent's job a decade ago, she retained her front-row briefing-room seat, even as colleagues sometimes rolled their eyes at her obvious biases.

"She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view, and there were some reporters who felt that was inappropriate," said CBS correspondent Mark Knoller. "As a columnist she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters."

But few called her out for such conduct -- until Nesenoff, who heads a Long Island synagogue, posted the video on his site RabbiLIVE.com. Commentators on the right and left quickly eviscerated Thomas.

"She's always said crazy stuff," said National Review Online columnist Jonah Goldberg. "One reason she gets a pass is that there's an entrenched system of deference to seniority in the White House press corps. . . . This newfound horror and dismay that people are expressing about Helen Thomas are beyond a day late and a dollar short."

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic reporter who specializes in the Middle East said: "Helen Thomas offered the official Hamas position, as far as I can tell. There's a level of insensitivity that's almost comical in what she said, to tell Jews to go back to Germany, where things worked out so well for them."

Thomas told a Washington Post reporter Friday night that she was "very sorry" and had "made a mistake," but did not address the substance of her comments. By Monday morning -- after her agent had dropped her, Hearst expressed deep regret over her remarks and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called them "offensive and reprehensible" -- she decided to call it quits. Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, said in a statement that her comments "do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance."

She is the most famous woman ever to cover 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and served as the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, which on Monday called her comments "indefensible." Thomas has written several books about the White House and played herself in the movies "Dave" (1993) and "The American President" (1995).

In 2000, when Thomas resigned from United Press International after it was bought by News World Communications, a company controlled by officials of the Unification Church, Dan Rather called her "a hero of journalism."

During George W. Bush's administration, Thomas became an icon for some liberals who applauded her outspoken opposition to the Iraq invasion and cast her as tougher than the reporters who failed to skeptically question the march to war. Ari Fleischer, who was Bush's first press secretary, led the campaign for her ouster over the weekend, e-mailing journalists who might have missed her remarks.

"It's a tragic ending, but she did the right thing by announcing her resignation," Fleischer said Monday. He was joined in the effort by former Clinton White House aide Lanny Davis.

In 2002, Thomas asked Fleischer: "Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?"

Four years later, Thomas told Fleischer's successor, Tony Snow, that the United States "could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon" by Israel, but instead had "gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Snow tartly thanked her for "the Hezbollah view."

Mark Rabin, a former freelance cameraman for CNN, said that in a 2002 conversation at the White House, Thomas said "thank God for Hezbollah" for driving Israel out of Lebanon, adding that "Israel is the cause for 99 percent of all this terrorism."

The Daily Caller Web site noted that during a 2004 speech to the Al-Hewar Center, a Washington-based Arab organization, Thomas likened Palestinian protesters resisting the "tyrannical occupation" by Israel to "those who resisted the Nazi occupation."

A handful of journalists questioned her role over the years. In a 2006 New Republic piece, Jonathan Chait accused Thomas of "unhinged rants," noting that she had asked such questions as: "Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. . . . It's outrageous."

The rabbi who triggered the controversy was deluged with e-mail and interview requests. After being told Monday that Thomas had retired, Nesenoff urged her to engage in a broader discussion about the Middle East. "She can't retire from the human race," he said. "May she live for many years, and use that time to make this moment an important moment." (The rabbi explained the delay in posting the May 27 video this way: "My son had finals, and he is my Webmaster.")

Sam Donaldson, a former White House correspondent for ABC, said Thomas was a "pioneer" for women, "and no one can take that away from Helen." While not defending her comments on Israel, he said they likely reflect the view of many people of Arab descent.

Donaldson, 76, who retired last year, was asked whether his friend, who started on the beat in 1960, had stayed too long.

"Her life was her work," Donaldson said. "She didn't have other interests. The thought that she'd give it up never entered her mind."

National Review's Jay Nordlinger says Thomas's views are truly radical:

"We owe something to her: She said out loud, in her specially nasty way, what other people think -- that Israel should 'get the hell out of Palestine' (not Israel, but 'Palestine') and that the Jews should 'go home': to Germany, to Poland, to wherever else they came from, or fled from. (Has anyone told Thomas that she should 'go home' to Lebanon? I'm sure that Hezbollah would welcome her as a heroine.)

"With the hard-core anti-Israel crowd, the problem is not 'occupation,' not the addition of in-law suites in Jerusalem: The problem is Israel itself. The very right of that state to exist. People like Helen Thomas are way to the 'left,' if that's the term, of the official position of the PLO. They are in line with Hamas and Hezbollah -- and their patron in Iran."

At the Daily Caller, Amanda Carey says the remarks "shouldn't have surprised anyone. Thomas has been doing it for years.

"Thomas is -- and this was not as well known to the public until recently -- a passionate and often angry hater of Israel, whose venom on the subject of Zionism and the Jewish State bubbles to the surface with alarming frequency. Consider her remarks at the White House briefing just the other day, when she called the recent Gaza flotilla raid a 'deliberate massacre and international crime.' "

The aforementioned Jonah Goldberg argues that "a lot of people in Washington need to get a grip.

"For starters, this is a classic gaffe because Helen Thomas accidentally told the truth. She's wrong on the substance, obviously. But of course she believes the Israelis should go away. I sincerely doubt there is anyone familiar with Thomas who really doubts for a moment that she was being less than honest when she made her 'back to Poland' comments or that she is lying now when she says she didn't mean it.

"But beyond that, can we do away with all of the shock and dismay at Thomas' statement? Spare me Lanny Davis's wounded outrage. Everyone knows she is a nasty piece of work and has been a nasty piece of work for decades. . . .

"Also, let's just get the liberal bias thing out of the way. . . . See? She's not biased she asks Obama and Clinton tough questions too! Yes, from the hard, loony left."

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin says Thomas isn't unpopular everywhere:

"Now, there is one place where she is very welcome: she's being lauded by Hamas. ('No doubt that Thomas Helen has told the truth that everybody in the world knows, but as American in a very important position , she was attacked by Zionists who went mad from the reality she mentioned in front of all people.')

"So what's the White House going to do: show it has as much sense as local school administrators, or allow Hamas and other Jew-haters the thrill of seeing their gal treated with respect in the White House briefing room?

In his TNR piece, Jonathan Chait says Thomas's "preferred solution is to turn a large chunk of the world's Jews into refugees. I find it morally abhorrent, but I don't think being an honest anti-Zionist should disqualify a person from working in journalism."

Butt-Busting POTUS

President Obama's team must be taking to heart all the media criticism about how he hasn't gotten mad enough over the BP debacle. The president told Matt Lauer in an interview that aired Tuesday morning:

"I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar; we talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick."

Does that sound like the Barack we know?

In fairness, Lauer fed the president the line -- which the NBC disseminated widely even before showing the interview -- by asking him when he was going to "kick some butt." Obama also told Lauer he had little time in this crisis to perform for the cable shows.

Meanwhile, a WP/ABC poll says that "overall, 69 percent of those polled now say the government has done a 'not so good' or 'poor' job handling the spill. More polled, 81 percent, give low marks to BP for its response. (Some 59 percent give negative ratings to both the federal government and BP.)"

Elena Who?

Although the NYT and WP continue to report on Elena Kagan, her nomination has become the incredible vanishing story, as Politico observes:

"When more than 46,000 pages of her work in the Clinton White House were released Friday afternoon, only a handful of Republicans and their conservative allies off Capitol Hill raised concerns about some of her liberal-leaning positions.

"All of which is making some wonder: What if they held a confirmation battle, but nobody showed up for a fight?

" 'She's a little bit boring -- and boring is good,' said one administration official close to the process, who added that the lack of a bombshell rallying point -- aka 'wise Latina' -- is a 'huge help.' "

I love that the official has to go on background to say Kagan is kinda boring.

A Call for Coalition Government

He's no fan of the president, and Fred Barnes argues in the WSJ that Obama should be rooting for the Repubs:

"In Washington these days, President Obama is rumored to be hoping Republicans capture the House of Representatives in the midterm election in November. There's no evidence for this speculation, so far as I know, but it's hardly far-fetched. If Mr. Obama wants to avert a fiscal crisis and win re-election in 2012, he needs House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be removed from her powerful post. A GOP takeover may be the only way.

"Given the deficit-and-debt mess that Mr. Obama has on his hands, a Republican House would be a godsend. A Republican Senate would help, too. A Republican majority, should it materialize, could be counted on to pass significant cuts in domestic spending next year--cuts that Mrs. Pelosi and her allies in the House Democratic hierarchy would never countenance. . . .

"With Republicans in charge, he'd have to be bipartisan. He'd surely have to accede to serious cuts in spending--even as he complains they are harsh and mean-spirited. Mr. Obama could play a double game, appeasing Democrats by criticizing the cuts and getting credit with everyone else by acquiescing to them."

It certainly worked for Bill Clinton. But then, Obama's agenda would be utterly stalled--a prospect not likely to displease Barnes.

Fingering the Leaker

Atlantic has the back story:

"Wired broke the news that Army SPC Bradley Manning, stationed at a forward deployed base near Baghdad, has been fingered by counterintelligence agents as the source behind Wikileaks' best scoops, including its 'Collateral Murder' video that shows a fog-of-war killing of journalists by U.S. soldiers.

"How did Manning get caught? He bragged about his exploits to a reformed 'Net hacker named Adrian Lamo, who is famous for turning himself in to to authorities after he hacked into the New York Times in 2004. Lamo, who goes by the Twitter handle @6, contacted the Army's Criminal Investigative Division when Manning boasted to him that he had leaked more than 250,000 highly classified diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. That, Lamo felt, could seriously endanger national security.

"After Wired posted its story, Lamo began to receive inquiries over Twitter. He responded with a series of Tweets acknowledging he played the snitch. 'I outed Manning as an alleged leaker out of duty. I would never out an Ordinary Decent Criminal. There's a difference,' he said in one. 'I'm heartsick for Manning and his family. I hope they can forgive me some day for doing what I felt had to be done.' "

Rush to Fame

I know you've all been wondering about the answer to this question: "Is Rush Limbaugh movie material?" The blog Deadline has the answer:

"Writer/producer James Sclafani thinks so, and has written a feature film about Limbaugh's life that is in the process of being packaged and shopped for financing. Sclafani, who recently sold his script Counter Kid to Bill Murray's Devoted Pictures, optioned The Rush Limbaugh Story: Talent on Loan from God, an unauthorized biography by longtime Gotham-based journalist Paul Colford, who currently heads media relations for the AP. The book served as the basis for the script.

"Sclafani said the script he's written is a close cousin to the Oliver Stone-directed George W. Bush feature W, in that he tries to get beneath the surface politics and controversies and down to the ambition and demons that drove Limbaugh's success. The film will include contradictions that have gone against his radio diatribes, from the dubious 4-F draft status during Vietnam (unearthed in Colford's book) to a get-tough stance against drug abusers that was contradicted by the revelation that he himself was addicted to prescription painkillers and got them illegally.

" 'This is Citizen Kane meets Private Parts, where you have a man who always had trouble relating to people in the outside world, but does it effortlessly in the booth,' said Sclafani, adding that Limbaugh is the proverbial fat kid, ignored in high school, and determined to prove everyone they were wrong about him."

Sounds like something of a psychodrama.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company