The retirement of Helen Thomas as a White House news correspondent marks a sad end to a great but overly extended career.
She probably would have continued the rest of her life holding down her front-row seat at presidential news conferences if she hadn’t stumbled so badly at the age of 89. Her downfall came when a rabbi asked for her comments on Israel and she blurted out that Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland or Germany.
Her words were deeply offensive to anyone with a sense of humanity or history. They were not only anti-Israel but came through as anti-Semitic, stirring more than 25,000 e-mails to Rabbi David Nesenoff including death threats, obscenity and hatefulness.
Ms. Thomas, whose parents were immigrants from Lebanon, had often denounced Israel, as she of course had every right to do. But in telling Israelis to go back to Poland she neglected the historical fact that many Holocaust survivors tried to do just that after World War II and Poles — not Nazis — killed about 1,500 of them. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recalled this little-known mini-Holocaust, attributing it either to Poles’ sheer ethnic hatred or to their fear that they would lose the homes and businesses that had been stolen from the Jews who had been taken off to concentration camps.
Ms. Thomas should be best remembered for an earlier era in her 57-year career. She was a correspondent and later White House bureau chief for United Press International and covered every president since the later years of the Eisenhower administration. She wound up as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
She always asked uncomfortable questions, but in recent years she took to issuing long rants, including her denunciations of Israel. In 2003, she declared George W. Bush the “worst president ever.” In 2007, she challenged Mr. Bush on 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.” Right or wrong, she was acting the part of a speechmaker, not journalist.
Like many celebrities — and that is what she had become — she stayed in the limelight too long. It happens anywhere, but especially in Washington, where members of Congress, socialites, broadcasters and journalists often hang on long past their prime. They must know that once they retire they will no longer get the attention, invitations and perks that they like so well. They must realize that Washington is no place for a has-been.
Helen Thomas, like a lot of others, should have quit while she was ahead.