How Helen Thomas Should Be Remembered

How Helen Thomas Should Be Remembered

Story tools

A A AResize


"Mr. President, when are you going to get out of Afghanistan? 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."

It's a question not unlike the hundreds of bold questions already asked by hard hitting, veteran journalist Helen Thomas. However, today it represents much more than that.

It stands as the last question Thomas will ever ask "Mr. President".

On Monday, Thomas, 89, announced her retirement from an extended journalistic career of almost 60 years. The decision came as a result of her response when asked unexpectedly in front of the White House if she had any comments on Israel.

She proceeded to say "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." When further probed by the interviewer, who asked "Where should they go?" Thomas replied they should go "home", to "Poland, Germany…and America and everywhere else."

About a week later, amidst a barrage of criticism that followed the incident, Thomas released a statement of apology.

"I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and Palestinians. They 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. May that day come soon," she said.

Unfortunately, Thomas' apology did little to insure the forgiveness of those who were offended and insulted by her remarks. Critics said that the comments were "inexcusable", "racist" and that she no longer deserved the highly coveted title, "Dean of the White House Press Corps".

Many of her fellow Arab Americans, however, including some who have come to know her personally over the years, say the abrupt words were not an accurate reflection of her character and longstanding career.

Dr. Jack Shaheen, an Arab American author and media critic, says that over the course of the last 25 years, he has had sporadic conversations with Thomas about US foreign policy, and he has never found her rhetoric to be extreme or racist.

"People that know her know what she meant to say. We have to remember that we have all misspoke in our lives at one time or another. It happens to the best of us," he said.

Yet, while Shaheen excuses the veteran journalist, he does acknowledge that she used a poor choice of words. "Unfortunately, words are weapons. They can help you and they can hurt you."

Former US Senator James Abourezk, founder of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), recently told reporters that he thinks Thomas was merely communicating the opinion of many who lie on the side of Palestinians when it comes to solving the Palestinian Israeli conflict.

"I understand what she really meant. They [Israelis] are taking the place of Palestinians who cannot return to Palestine, their home."

"Yet, she lost her job, lost her position with the press club, lost her position with the press corps...that's punishment over the top for what she was intending to say there," he added.

Now, many are left to wonder whether this castigation will overshadow Thomas' accomplishments which far precede her controversial commentary. Over the years, she has commonly been recognized as a trailblazer for women in the field of journalism.

Thomas became a credentialed journalist when she joined the United Press International (UPI) as a reporter in 1943 at a time when women had not yet permeated the news and media industry. In 1960, she began to cover White House briefings, and by 1974, she was named the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service by the UPI.

Shortly after, she became the first female to be appointed an officer of the National Press Club. It wasn't until 2000, however, that Thomas marked her place in the front row of the press briefing room with the distinguished 'first question'.

And just as she was the first female to ascend to such notable positions, likewise was she the first Arab American to do so.

It is for this reason that the Arab American community seemingly remains both proud of what she has accomplished and hopeful that the comments won't overshadow her positive contribution to society.

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor graduate, Andrew Dalack admits her remarks were "rash and unfortunate" yet thinks we have to recognize Thomas for her commitment to asking the tough questions, those that were hard to ask as a journalist and even harder to answer as a politician.

Dalack said, "She will be remembered for her commitment to social justice, and for taking generations of US Presidents to task for foreign policy decisions that have dragged America's image through the mud."

Like Dalack, many Americans across the country are choosing to remember Thomas for her brave role as a 'watchdog of democracy' --hopeful that her legacy will not be forever tainted by a commentary mishap.