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June 8, 2010

Exit Helen Thomas, Journalism Icon

Roy Meachum

Monday while going into Safeway, the radio said Helen Thomas resigned from her last post, as a Hearst Syndicate columnist.


Nobody practicing this trade in Washington the past 50 years did not know her name; she inspired respect by the way she stood up to authority. Women, in particular, should genuflect at her name. She broke more male taboos in this profession than all of the feminist groups combined.


It was on the South Lawn during Lyndon Baines Johnson’s last Easter Eggroll: I saw Helen Thomas, the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association. She was talking with her boss, Merriman Smith, of United Press International. (She was also the first female officer of the National Press Club and first of her gender to be invited to join the Gridiron Club.)


At Sunday breakfast I heard Helen’s name. It seems she did a tape with Rabbi David Nessenhoff on May 27 in which she said Israelis should go back to the places their family came from before moving to the Middle East, naming Europe and America. I wondered why the item had been ignored by major media until Fox News broke the story on Friday – eight days after the interview took place.


Was I shocked or surprised the things she said she about the Jewish state? Not really. Helen’s reputation for saying what’s on her mind has long been established. Young reporters and politicians tried to stay out her way. Furthermore, I knew her father and mother came over from Lebanon; she was born in Kentucky. I knew she was Catholic, by a cross around her neck. Checking her biography for this column, I discovered she’s an Orthodox Catholic, which means her family’s religion started long ago, when Constantinople ruled the region. I was impressed. That said their faith had endured the Muslim conquest and several centuries under Istanbul’s dominance


Helen and I never talked about the Middle East but I figured she wound up among my other friends with families from the region: They resented European and American Christian guilt enabling the Holocaust survivors to take over Palestine, a post-World War I British colony. The S.S. Saint Louis chartered in 1939 by 900 Jews was absolutely refused entry to this country. The ship sailed back to Hamburg, Germany, where most of the passengers wound up in the gas ovens, joining the other millions of victims.


Near where I lived in an Army-occupied German castle in the Frankfurt area stood Camp Zeilsheim that held the largest number of ex-concentration camp prisoners. They were officially encouraged to join the Haganah, Israel’s future army – by Allied occupation authorities. Seemingly everybody wanted the Jews out of sight; to have them around would be exceedingly discomforting, reminders of Christian failures to stop Hitler and his Nazis.


European anti-Semitism continued strong in 2001 when a friend traveled in Czechoslovakia; she discovered while the republic had reimbursed property losses from the Communist period, no such comfort was offered Jews who lost everything when the Nazis invaded. Three thousand dollar annual pensions were allotted that year to those Holocaust victims still alive; there were only 15, she said.


Helen Thomas looks forward bleakly to her 90th birthday, on August 4. The speakers’ bureau dumped her. An invitation to talk to a Bethesda high school commencement was cancelled. She had a job for Hearst, nothing more, when this week dawned. After leaving The Washington Post, I worked for the Hearst Corporation. When founder William Randolph Hearst passed, he seemingly took along all the backbone and muscle. They are not notorious for upholding employees’ right to free speech.


By contrast, when I failed to hew the Israeli line in Frederick News-Post columns, there were cries to get me fired, former Publisher George Delaplaine checked my copy and never wavered on the right to speak my mind. He was aided by Colonial Jewelers’ Will Hurwitz, who refused to join the effort by Harold Weisberg, who appointed himself the guardian of what or what not could be said about the Middle East.


I’m still puzzled about the long delay in the rabbi’s releasing the story. As it was, it broke when Israel was under great pressure because it caused nine deaths on the convoy to break the blockade of Gaza. Comparably, what Helen said or did as an individual mattered insignificantly. An international investigation of the high seas incident is still called for.


Not incidentally, people who jeer at Helen Thomas should pause and consider: the deeply anti-Americanism prevalent among Muslim countries stems from Washington handing a blank check to Israel. As I mentioned in Friday’s piece, not since Dwight David Eisenhower has any president stood up to pressure, first from Tel Aviv and now from Jerusalem.


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