For decades, Helen Thomas was a trailblazer. She was the first female member or leader of more organizations than I’ve ever joined, but for years now she’s been little more than an embarrassment. If Helen Thomas did one useful thing in the 21st century, it was to prove that journalistic snobbery toward citizen journalism had nothing to do with high standards and everything to do with hanging in the right crowd.
In the years before this week’s retirement, the weight of unhinged bile and pointless speechifying that poured from her lips, typewriter and carbon paper would have been enough to shatter the influence of any prominent blogger. Its increasing recklessness and savagery was no secret. If you didn’t know, you weren’t paying attention. Indeed, editors across the country were paying attention and few bothered to run her column anymore.
Perhaps the decline of her mental faculties was less obvious, but it didn’t take much work or insider access to know that the Helen of old and the Helen of 2010 were vastly different people.
I first met Helen Thomas in 1995 just after I moved up from lowly wire service intern to lowly newspaper news assistant. I ran into her at some sad Washington cocktail party and found a lady just as crusty as you’d expect from someone covering the White House since the early days of the Van Buren administration. But she was also funny, full of stories and willing to encourage a newbie journalist even if he was not in ideological sync with the dean of the White House press corps. For years, I bumped into her and enjoyed the same old Helen.
After I was away for a few years, we were both speaking at the same journalism conference in 2005 and I reintroduced myself. She was a changed woman - slower, sometimes not entirely coherent and full of hate for anyone who disagreed. Her reaction to the fact that I had worked a year in the Bush administration involved spittle.
As Washington is a small town, I kept running into her. Each time I hoped I would glimpse the gal who had encouraged me when I was less than a Washington nobody. I didn’t.
The folks who call Helen Thomas friend - at the White House, at Scripps-Howard, in her personal life and in the liberal movement - had to see this, too. If they didn’t, it was because they didn’t want to. Yet they were too timid to insist that Helen needed to leave the spotlight.
Had she left in 2000 or even 2004, she would have left the White House an unassailable lioness of the journalism world. The establishment press loved her. Liberals loved her. Republicans bearing the scars from her loving attentions would have had to find something nice to say, even if it felt like swallowing broken glass. She would have gone out like the pioneer she was - one to whom I am profoundly grateful for her courage to open wider opportunity’s doors for my daughters.
Instead, she has been kicked into retirement to be remembered indelibly for views more at home in a Hamas-controlled slum than in the country of her birth.
It is a lesson that Washington liberals refuse to learn. Helen would have hated leaving the White House and would have fought every step of the way, but being tough with someone - doing exactly what they don’t want - is often the surest sign of caring, whether it is a single mom on welfare, your own prodigal child or a journalism icon.
Those who cared for Helen Thomas shouldn’t have let her go out this way.
David Mastio is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times.