Reaction to the death of Helen Thomas split messily along gender lines, and across ideologies. Female political reporters and White House reporters saluted Thomas as a trailblazer, a Jackie Robinson of her industry. This humblebrag from the AP’s current White House correspondent sums that up:
Any woman who has had the privilege of sitting in the front row of the White House briefing room owes huge debt of gratitude to Helen Thomas — Julie Pace (@jpaceDC) July 20, 2013
Thomas was a woman who lunged for stories and exclusives in a profession that still runs on testosterone. But on the right, there was no joining in the mourners’ parade. From the Wall Street Journal”s James Taranto:
This day an eerie silence fell on American journalism’s attic. — James Taranto (@jamestaranto) July 20, 2013
Would journos like @markknoller and @JudyWoodruff heap praise on a MALE anti-Semite? #waronmen — James Taranto (@jamestaranto) July 20, 2013
From the Washington Examiner’s Phil Klein:
The thing I’ll always remember most about Helen Thomas is that she hated Jews. — Philip Klein (@philipaklein) July 20, 2013
Conservatives generally ignored Thomas’ symbolism and remember the last years of her journalism. As David Folkenflik remembers in his obituary, the 2000 collapse of UPI and its purchase by the Moonies inspired Thomas to skeddadle, and to become a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. In her 80s, and as George W. Bush took office, Thomas was as hard-working as ever but she was no longer a straight news reporter. She was an icon who was allowed, from the front row, to broadcast her opinion. Back in 2003 Jack Shafer collected some of her greatest-hits exchanges with Ari Fleischer.
Thomas to Fleischer: Will you state for the record, for the historical record, why [Bush] wants to bomb Iraqi people?
—March 5, 2003
Thomas to Fleischer: [W]hy is [Bush] going to bomb them? I mean, how do you bomb people back to democracy? This is a question of conquest. They didn’t ask to be “liberated” by the United States. This is our self-imposed political solution for them.
—Feb. 26, 2003
Thomas: At an earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world?
Fleischer: Well, Helen—
Thomas: And I have a follow-up.
Fleischer:—I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in a statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Thomas: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?
—Jan. 6, 2003
As Shafer pointed out, Thomas’ style managed to turn her into a foil for the White House. The president would ignore her; some news outlet would get her to talk about how horrible the administration was. “She often raises serious questions that are on lots of people’s minds—questions that other critical journalists in the press corps might want to pose,” wrote Shafer. “But when spoken by Thomas’ lecturing lips first, the questions sound absurd.”
As the White House’s press arm became more and more controlling and patronizing, the “foil” became a necessary player. Once Barack Obama became president, WorldNetDaily’s crotchety Les Kinsolving inherited the role, getting called on whenever Robert Gibbs needed to take the heat off a session with a round of “where’s the birth certificate?”
But back to Thomas. If you agreed with her—and, well, early skepticism of the Iraq adventure sounds pretty good now—you liked the idea that she was irritating the Bush administration and making them sweat for a few televised minutes. And what if you disagreed? Thomas was a symbol of everything you loathed about the mainstream media, and of how opposition to Bush’s foreign policy was motivated by ideology or straight-up ethnic animus. In 2006, during Israel’s short war in Lebanon, Thomas got into a back-and-forth with then-press secretary Tony Snow, telling him that “We have gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.” Snow’s response: “Well, thank you for the Hezbollah view.”
On the right, it was pretty well accepted that the Lebanese-American Thomas was an anti-Semite. In 2010 she effectively ended her career by confirmed she was, at least, anti-Zionist. A rabbi, doing friendly interviews with reporters and White House staffers during an open event, asked Thomas flatly if she had “any comments on Israel.” Thomas’ comments were: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” She continued by insisting that the Jews in Israel could “go home” to Eastern Europe.
Thomas resigned from Hearst, but not before Ari Fleischer got in a few last digs at her. Thomas never apologized, either; when Joy Behar asked about the remarks, Thomas added that maybe she erred by not listing Russia as another place for the Jews to leave Israel for. As late as 2012, Jonah Goldberg could get a laugh at CPAC by saying he was “as happy as Helen Thomas at a Hamas rally.”
The press didn’t bother registering any offense at that. It fancies itself as uncompromising and tough on any administration’s foreign policy; Thomas was taking a stance on whether another country fundamentally deserved to exist. The only thing conservatives will miss about Thomas is that they found someone so easy to use as a foil to get people to mistrust the press and trust the president.