Helen Thomas today is learning something many of the people she interviews have long known: say the wrong thing, and you can jeopardize your career in an instant.
Ms.Thomas, the longtime Washington journalist, resigned Monday from her post as columnist for Hearst News Service, after she made remarks about Israel that many of her colleagues, and the White House itself, denounced as offensive.
Now perhaps she knows how some of the people she covered during her long and distinguished career felt when the harsh spotlight of the press shown on them.
Consider the case of Trent Lott. Remember him? Sen. Lott (R) of Mississippi rose to the post of Majority Leader in 2001. Then he made a remark which seemed sympathetic to the South’s segregated past at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. He resigned his leadership post shortly thereafter.
Then there was George Allen. Sen. Allen (R) of Virginia was running for reelection in 2006 when at a rally he used the racial slur “macaca” to describe an aide for his opponent. Allen apologized and said he didn’t know the meaning of the word, but the damage was done. He lost.
Joe Biden has a pretty good job now, but if you recall, he ran for president himself last time around. At one point, he described his Senate colleague and nomination rival Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. Much of the rest of his run was spent apologizing for this remark. (It didn’t bother Obama, apparently.)
This is not to say there is any equivalence between what these men said and Thomas's remarks. But public figures generally are aware that their words carry an impact, and they tend to watch them closely. When they slip, stuff happens.
In remarks captured on video and released May 27, Thomas said that Israelis should “get the [expletive] out of Palestine” and go back to Germany, Poland, and other nations from which their ancestors came.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the remark “reprehensible.” The White House Correspondents Association, in a rare statement, called her comments “indefensible.” Bethesda Maryland’s Walt Whitman High School cancelled her scheduled commencement address.
“Graduation celebrations are not the venue for divisiveness,” wrote Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin in an e-mail to parents and students.
Thomas apologized profusely for her remarks, but then abruptly said she was leaving her journalism post for good on Monday. Thomas began her long career with United Press International in 1943. She has been covering the White House since 1960 – before the current occupant of the Oval Office was born.
She took the Hearst columnist post in 2000.
“Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by [her] comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trail blazer on the White House beat,” said the statement from the White House Correspondents Association.