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Helen Thomas, the rabbi and the press

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; 9:34 AM

There she goes again.

That was the eye-rolling reaction in the White House press room when Helen Thomas would go off on one of her rants about the Middle East. She had been there for so long, was so admired by female journalists, was such a curmudgeonly character, that she was regarded as everyone's eccentric aunt.

But that's not how she was seen by much of the country, which still viewed her as the groundbreaking correspondent she once was, not the cranky columnist she had become. So when Aunt Helen snapped that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" -- and go back to Germany, among other places -- many onlookers were stunned.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that she was a member in good standing of a tightly knit club that refused to question why a woman whose main job seemed to be to harangue press secretaries and presidents deserved a front-row seat in the briefing room. Only the furor that followed a chance encounter with a rabbi armed with a video camera prompted the 89-year-old Thomas to retire last week.

Journalists, especially those who spend a great deal of time together, don't usually turn on one another. If Thomas was spewing bias and bile, the reasoning went, what was the harm?

None of this is to detract from what Thomas accomplished beginning in 1960, when the press corps was made up mainly of white men in skinny ties, and women occasionally showed up to write about a first lady's social activities. Thomas was never known for great writing or breaking stories, but she was a dogged daily chronicler for United Press International.

After joining Hearst Newspapers a decade ago, however, Thomas became a marginal figure. Few were reading her column, especially in Washington. Her stature -- the Society of Professional Journalists gave out a Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement -- derived from her earlier career and her choice bit of real estate.

The art of inquiry

There was something to admire in Thomas's determination to ask uncomfortable questions. But when she declared George W. Bush the "worst president ever" in 2003, she shed any pretense of fair-mindedness. As time went on, her questions turned into speeches, as in this 2007 challenge to Bush over Iraq:

"Mr. President, you started this war. It's a war of your choosing. You can end it, alone. Today. At this point bring in peacekeepers, U.N. peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled the country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don't you understand? We brought the al-Qaeda into Iraq." One might agree or disagree with those sentiments, but she was performing as an activist, not a journalist.

Former CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre wrote last week that "there's a big difference between asking tough questions and getting answers to tough questions. Anyone can ASK tough questions. But figuring out how to hold government officials accountable, by posing questions in such a way that they can't avoid answering them, is a much harder, and far more valuable journalistic exercise than just venting from a padded front seat in the White House briefing room. Helen Thomas' questions were not designed to probe weaknesses in the president's policies. They were just meant to provoke him."

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum said on his blog that "calling on Helen Thomas was a notorious method for a hard-pressed White House press secretary to EVADE tough questions from the rest of the press corps. A zany, out-of-left-field protest from Thomas would disrupt a flow of unwelcome queries, maybe spark a tension-breaking laugh, maybe change the subject altogether."

David Nesenoff, the Long Island rabbi who triggered Thomas's resignation by asking for her thoughts on Israel, says he has received death threats and more than 25,000 e-mails, many of them obscene and hate-filled. One called him a "dirty Jew," saying: "Hittler [sic] was right! Time for you to go back in the oven!"

Nesenoff also says "there are individuals within the media" who are "pursuing an agenda," though he declines to identify them. (Critics have derided him for portraying a stereotypical Mexican with a bad accent in a video on his Web site, which the rabbi dismisses as a harmless Purim skit.) Had they called, Nesenoff says, he would have explained that he has founded an anti-bias task force, consulted for the Justice Department in the Denny's restaurant discrimination case and spoken with Mel Gibson about his drunken, anti-Semitic rant.

To those who say he wound up infringing on Thomas's freedom of speech, Nesenoff says that she had a public platform "for 60 years. I had it for two minutes, and I shared my two minutes with her. It was specifically her freedom of speech that caused this problem."

What friends are for

Since Thomas was a columnist, she had every right to her opinions -- even if her view was that Jews should be banished from Israel. But she didn't have a perpetual right to a newspaper column or a White House press room seat. Hearst bears some responsibility for keeping Thomas on as her behavior grew more disturbing. It's not that a pro-Israel press corps drove her out; it's that Thomas could not defend her remarks, and indeed apologized for them.

All this might have been avoided had Helen's friends gently suggested it was time to retire. But here the insular nature of Beltway life clearly came into play. Those who were accustomed to seeing Thomas around town regarded her as one of Washington's harmless gadflies, perhaps forgetting that she still had access to a powerful megaphone.

There were exceptions -- Slate's Jack Shafer and the New Republic's Jonathan Chait have noted that Thomas was asking "wildly inappropriate" questions, as Chait put it, but the story line got no traction, even when the late White House spokesman Tony Snow accused her of offering "the Hezbollah view."

Thomas, meanwhile, positioned herself as the truth-telling alternative to Washington's weenies. Her 2007 book was titled "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public." In a March interview with Viceland magazine, she said -- with some justification -- that "everyone rolled over and played dead" during the run-up to the Iraq war. Thomas added, rather conspiratorially, that she was "sure the big communications corporations got orders from on high. So they played ball."

Back in 1996, after a long night of election coverage, the incomparable David Brinkley said he'd had enough "goddamned nonsense" from Bill Clinton and that the president "is a bore, and always will be a bore." Brinkley apologized, but days later he stepped down from hosting his revolutionary program, "This Week."

As with Brinkley, no one can take away Thomas's trailblazing career, but those decades in the spotlight also imposed a responsibility to meet certain minimal standards. Why wasn't she reined in earlier? For the same reason I've been tempted to pull a couple of punches in writing this: Who wants to beat up on an octogenarian lady? But a little tough love might have spared her this final blot on her legacy.

Asked and answered

Sarah Palin was right when she told Greta Van Susteren that "you're not afraid to ask the questions."

The Fox News host indeed asked a question Friday that was buzzing online -- started by photos posted on Gawker.

"Breast implants: Did you have them or not?" Van Susteren said.

The former Alaska governor allowed that "Boobgate is all over the Internet right now because there are a lot of I guess bored, idle bloggers and reporters with nothing else to talk about. . . . Nooo, I have not had implants."

The question likely would have boomeranged on any man who dared raise it. And Van Susteren correctly predicted that Palin's answer would overshadow their discussion of energy policy.

Palin also took a shot at Newsweek for its new "Saint Sarah" cover -- depicting her with a halo -- for a story on her impact on conservative Christian women. While acknowledging she hadn't read the piece, Palin referred to The Washington Post Co. seeking bids for the magazine: "It's not interesting stuff that they're making up and writing, and that's why they're going down."

Obama, oil and emotion

The White House continues to ramp up the public aspects of its oil spill response, and an Oval Office address is on tap.

"President Obama will try this week to exert more control over the handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by meeting with BP executives and pressing them to set up an escrow fund to pay damage claims and to address the nation on the environmental disaster," the L.A. Times says.

Obama will make this fourth visit to the gulf region on Monday, and he will speak to the nation Tuesday evening.

It now seems we're going to be debating the president's demeanor for the rest of his term or the duration of the oil spill, whichever ends first. Rich Lowry seems to have liked the old O better than the new O:

"Obama has always been the calm, crisp standout. People may have lost their cool about him in 2008, but he never lost his. He matched his inspirational rhetoric with an emotional affect tending toward the aloof and even cold.

"He was the last person you'd expect to utter a vulgarity in public, or go out of his way to express anger. Until the BP leak. Asked by Matt Lauer on the Today show why he was meeting with experts when he could be kicking butt, Obama said he'd been misinterpreted: '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.'

"Obama may be the first ass-kicker who wants to consult with a Nobel Prize winner in physics, his energy secretary, Steven Chu, before he pile-drives anyone. This is taking technocratic government to an entire new level -- it's the best and the brightest meets Jesse Ventura.

"Obama's kick-ass moment reeked of falsity and futility, two of the most undesirable political qualities. He caved to the mob of pundits demanding that he rise to the complex, wide-ranging challenge of the largest oil spill in U.S. history with a good fit of anger. Or, as Spike Lee wisely counseled, that he 'go off.' "

At the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans turns thumbs down on the performance:

"Americans may say they want straight-talking politicians, but we also demand the kind of political theater that makes us feel better. It's not enough to get the job done; you've also got to look like you're getting the job done. And when the job's not even getting done, then you at least better look like you're trying hard.

"Which is where we are with the administration's response to the oil spill. Former Clinton aide James Carville loses his marbles every night on CNN, creating his own bit of TV theater while channeling the public's real feeling on this matter. Obama's cool logic -- jumping up and down won't make technology that's not working work any better -- ignores the simple truth of Carville's demands. Act like you're doing something, he bellows, so we can believe in you again.

"So the president gets pulled into playing that game a little bit by the Today show, and gives pundits more red meat to cynically decry a step toward the kind of political theater they had been demanding he display for weeks."

And speaking of Carville, Mediaite reports that he said he wanted to "hit" CNN colleague Fareed Zakaria for wanting the president "reflect our anger and emotion. This is a kind of bizarre trivializing of the presidency into some kind of national psychiatrist-in-chief."

Carville, smiling -- but only at first -- responded strongly:

The Cajun raged: "I don't think that he understands exactly what is going on down here. . . . If that thing was in the Long Island Sound, I guarantee you Fareed Zakaria and all his friends would be going nuts out there."

Apologies are so yesterday

Has Carly Fiorina apologized to Barbara Boxer for being caught off-camera dissing her opponent's hair? No, she tells "Fox News Sunday" only that she regrets giving people "the opportunity to talk about something petty and superficial." By saying something petty and superficial?

Hyphenated Americans

The two alleged affairs have gotten far more attention, but the Daily Beast's Reihan Salam is more interested in the ethnic background of the likely GOP gubernatorial nominee in South Carolina:

"In light of Nikki Haley's meteoric rise, one can't help but marvel at how quickly and painlessly the U.S has adapted to momentous demographic change. Here we have a South Asian woman with a southern drawl, running and thriving as the champion of a political movement widely regarded as highly parochial if not bitterly xenophobic. And her success comes shortly after Barack Obama, the son of a sojourning student from the developing world, was elected president of the United States. But it is instructive that Haley and Obama, in different ways, have embraced identities that are profoundly un-exotic. This raises the question of how 'ethnic' a minority politician can be before alienating the voting public.

"Indeed, the suspicions that linger about both Haley and Obama on the political fringe rest on the notion that both are somehow inauthentic. Barack Obama is said to be a secret Muslim while Nikki Haley is said to be a secret Sikh, both sleeper agents of shadowy anti-Christian conspiracies. Yet by and large Haley and Obama are taken at their word. Haley fondly recalls her rural South Carolina upbringing, and seems entirely sincere in her professions of devout Christian faith. Though Barack Obama was raised in cosmopolitan Honolulu and Jakarta, he embraced the cadences and sensibilities of African-American Chicago, rooting himself in a familiar cultural and political tradition."

I didn't know about the secret Sikh part! Too busy looking at how the extramarital allegations don't seem to have hurt her at all.

Fit to print

This posting, by Jeffrey Goldberg, is so quintessentially Gray Lady:

"I've been taking a fair amount of both 'ribbing' and 'joshing' from friends who objected to the use of the word 'tush' in a quotation I gave to the New York Times' Helene Cooper (author of a wonderful book about my third-most-favorite country, btw) for an article she wrote in the Week in Review section on Sunday. The quote reads as follows:

" 'I don't necessarily believe you solve all of America's problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen by freezing settlement growth. On the other hand, there's no particular reason for Israel to make itself a pain in the tush either.'

"When Helene first interviewed me, I actually used the word 'tuchus,' rather than 'tush,' but she phoned back a couple of hours later to tell me that the newspaper's Special Committee for the Proper Deployment of Yiddishisms ruled that 'tuchus' is insufficiently elegant, and so could I please offer a substitute. I asked Helene for a suggestion, and she came up with 'tushie.' I responded by questioning whether the word 'tushie' could be considered more elegant than the word 'tuchus.' I also told her that I could not allow myself to be quoted using the word 'tushie' because I am no longer four years old."

I guess only the president can use the A-word in the NYT.

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

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