The Last Curmudgeon

Well, the old bat is gone – although it’s not exactly Ding-Dong the Wicked Witch Is Dead. Helen Thomas is pushing ninety and quite alive. She just took earlier retirement:

Helen Thomas, a veteran columnist for Hearst Newspapers, announced her resignation today shortly after the White House condemned her remarks about Jews as “offensive” and “reprehensible.” The White House reporter said Jews should “get out of Palestine.” Thomas caused an uproar with her recent remarks that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany, America and “everywhere else.”

“I think she should and has apologized,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at the daily briefing today. “Obviously those remarks do not reflect, certainly, the opinion of, I assume, most of the people in here, and certainly not of the administration.”

Since Thomas made the comments in a May 27 interview with, former U.S. officials and fellow columnists had called for her suspension from the White House press briefings, where she has her own front-row, center seat. Thomas, 89, is given special privileges due to her long-standing service as a journalist. She has covered every president since John F. Kennedy.

Maybe it’s just that she was getting old. Most people pack it in when they turn sixty-five or so, or are eased out the workplace at that age, because you know how old people are – irascible. It’s those outbursts of saying exactly what’s on their minds, not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. That’s deadly in committee meetings. You don’t want someone blurting out that this is all horseshit, even if you suspect it is. The fiction that you’re doing something useful is what keeps American corporations functioning. Sometimes it’s the only thing that does – fool yourself then fool the shareholders, then fool the customers. You don’t need the old curmudgeon in the corner suggesting no one needs a digital toaster.

But you can see how this happens. It’s either a sense of entitlement – age and experience that the young whippersnappers don’t have should give you that right – or organic brain damage from aging, where whatever region of the brain that governs self-censorship and tact has finally burned out from a lifetime of overuse, where you bite your tongue and don’t tell your boss that he’s being a jerk and that sort of thing. So you decide you no longer have to play nice, or, without realizing it, you’ve lost all ability to play nice. Of course the cranky old guy who blurts out embarrassing observations on life, or his granddaughter’s fat ass, is a staple of Hollywood sitcoms – you have to have one of those characters, the one who has lost his inner censor to old age and embarrasses everyone by blurting out the truth no one dares say aloud. It’s that loveable-but-crazy-but-truthful old man thing. It’s funny and it advances the plot.

But what Helen Thomas said wasn’t funny and didn’t advance anything. And it ended an amazing career:

She served for 57 years as a correspondent and, later as, White House bureau chief for United Press International (UPI). Thomas covered every president of the United States since the later years of the Eisenhower administration, coming to the forefront with John F. Kennedy, and serving until the second year of the Obama administration. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and, in 1975, the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She has written five books; her latest with co-author Craig Crawford is Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do.

And she shares a birthday with Obama – August 4, for what that’s worth. Last year he gave her a cupcake. That won’t happen again.

Of course the problem is Israel and the Jews. And maybe, as happens with many of us getting old, the distant past becomes oddly real. Her parents were Lebanese immigrants from Tripoli, in Lebanon, and she was raised as a Christian, but of the kind the evangelical right considers spooky and weird, in the Greek Orthodox Church. And she grew up in Detroit – that old place that gave us Motown music and is now heavily Muslim. Detroit long ago ceased to be what Sarah Plain would call Real America. No wonder she went off on Israel and the Jews. The evangelical right will tell you that if it comes down to it, America may have to end, if it means Israel survives – end times and all that. And they’ll tell you all true patriots feel that way. And they don’t come from Detroit.

But Helen Thomas had always been a pain in the ass. On March 21, 2006, she was called upon directly by President Bush – for the first time in three years. After a speech at a Society of Professional Journalists banquet she told an autograph-seeker, who asked why she was sad, “I’m covering the worst president in American history.” That soured things. But perhaps Bush was feeling gracious that day, or someone told him he might give being gracious a try, just to befuddle the world. But he was sorry. Thomas asked Bush about the War in Iraq:

I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet…your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth…what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil… quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

The press corps gasped, and Bush said something or other – and Fox News intensified its jihad against her. And now Craig Crawford, who co-authored that book with her, said, after what she just said, that he “will no longer be working with Helen on our book projects.” Obama called her retirement “the right decision” and said her remarks were “offensive” and “out of line” and that it was a “shame” her celebrated career had to end in such controversy, but that the same time he recognized her long service covering and those presidents and called her “a real institution in Washington.” And you know the old joke. Anyone that’s committed to an institution ought to be.

And now there’s this:

Following Hearst columnist Helen Thomas’ retirement, reporters have been chattering about who will take her front row seat at White House press briefings, with the main contenders said to be Bloomberg and Fox News. On Don Imus’ Fox Business show today, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace advocated for his network getting the chair, saying that it would be “the final, sort of, payment for, for Helen Thomas.”

“If this were to happen because obviously she was very far to the left wing and if her seat were to be taken by Fox News it would just be kind of poetic justice,” said Wallace. Imus quickly noticed that Wallace was all but saying that Fox was right wing and gave Wallace the opportunity to walk back his comment.

That was amusing:

IMUS: But what are you suggesting about Fox News then?

WALLACE: Pardon?

IMUS: What are you suggesting about Fox News?

WALLACE: Well, I just realized that’s probably not the way to go on this. In any case.

IMUS: No it wasn’t, was it.

WALLACE: We’re fair and balanced. That’s the point.

IMUS: Let me dig you out.

WALLACE: She’s off to the left.

IMUS: Good. Why don’t we dig out of the hole you’ve just dug for yourself.

WALLACE: You know what the old line is. Just stop digging. So, in any case.

IMUS: By the way, say hi to Roger [Ailes] when he calls you. It’s a little joke.

It’s like a Hollywood sitcom – the old curmudgeon in the corner says something outrageous and all sorts of things happen. Would-be screenwriters take note – it works every time.

But no one is defending Thomas. Of course she issued a statement of apology after her comments became public:

I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.

But of course you could criticize that – she implied the Palestinians deserve respect and tolerance. They don’t. Even Democrats agree with the current Israeli government on that. Ask Chuck Schumer – it “makes sense” to “strangle Gaza economically”‘ until it votes the way Israel wants. Let the kids starve and the economy collapse. Then they’ll do the right thing. It’s called collective punishment, and perhaps he’s thinking of the near-total embargo we’ve had on Cuba since February 7, 1962 – to convince the Cuban people, starved for goods, to get rid of Castro. Of course Castro is still there, but it should have worked, in theory.

But what are we to make of Helen Thomas? Is she an anti-Semitic bigot? Andrew Sullivan offers this:

I found her remarks about Israelis returning to Poland unconscionably callous and vile, although I do think it should be possible for an anti-Zionist to be a major political reporter and/or columnist.

And he wonders if there is a columnist on any American op-ed page who is explicitly against the existence of the state of Israel? She may be unique. But she did ask good questions of Obama – “When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.'”

But that’s just what he did. And Sullivan argues “there’s a fearlessness here that we desperately need.” Be we don’t have what we need – “Instead we have socializing, trivia, source-greasing and stenography.”

Sullivan has long argued that being critical of Israel does not mean you’re an anti-Zionist, or even worse, anti-Semitic – and he argues that because that is what he is often accused of. But he harks back to this 2006 column by the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen:

The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake – a mistake for which no one is culpable – but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.

That’s a milder version of what Helen Thomas said, but not much milder. Richard Cohen called Israel a mistake and kept his job. But he did not back down:

Readers of my recent column on the Middle East can accuse me of many things, but not a lack of realism. I know Israel’s imperfections, but I also exalt and admire its achievements. Lacking religious conviction, I fear for its future and note the ominous spread of European-style anti-Semitism throughout the Muslim world – and its boomerang return to Europe as a mindless form of anti-Zionism. Israel is, as I have often said, unfortunately located, gentrifying a pretty bad neighborhood. But the world is full of dislocated peoples, and we ourselves live in a country where the Indians were pushed out of the way so that – oh, what irony! – the owners of slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea.

That helps a little, but Sullivan is in a different quandary. Sullivan is a conservative of the old-fashioned sort, always harking back to the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who maintained that all of the feel-good quick fixes for things would only lead to trouble, and given how life is tragic and there are things we cannot make better, it’s better to stick to tradition and convention. The institutions we have built over the long centuries may not work well, but they work. Adjust them a bit if you must, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. This led to his famous speech on the death of Marie Antoinette:

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

It was a bit embarrassing, but Burke didn’t like revolutions. He was in favor of tinkering with that status quo, but only when you must, and then not very much. You have to conserve what works well enough, because all the radical nonsense people arrogantly propose leads to trouble. It’s a tragic vision of the limitations of man in this world. Sullivan and others might frame it as severe eyes-wide-open utter realism. Burkean conservatives don’t lie to themselves. That’s for idealists and revolutionaries.

But Sullivan has a problem with Israel:

I was thinking recently how a Burkean could defend the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. I’m not sure it’s possible – which may say more about the limits of Burkean conservatism than Zionism. Although Jews obviously dwelled in Palestine for as long as anyone, their numbers were few in recent centuries until the grand experiment. Zionism began as an idea, another nineteenth century “ism”, and was, like most radical ideas, controversial among Jews and Gentiles everywhere in its inception and since. It was radically utopian, an almost textbook example of imposing an abstract concept – a settled Jewish nation after so long a Diaspora – on a land already embedded with an existing geographic, demographic, religious and cultural reality.

In fact, you could think of it as a revolutionary idea. Sullivan, on the other hand, thinks you might be able to see the emergence of Israel as a negative Burkean consequence of the Holocaust:

But most Zionists are offended by this idea, and it seems to me that this makes sense as a Burkean defense of Israel for Europeans, but has little resonance for Jewish Palestinians, Arab Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Persians, Kurds, and others more directly affected. I remain deeply committed to the idea of Israel, largely because the Shoah proved beyond any doubt that there was no security for Jews as a nation without a homeland. But the Burkean in me cries out prudentially against trying to coerce history – and tradition and settled populations – in this radical and sudden way.

Well, that is why Edmund Burke was appalled by the French Revolution. You do not coerce history and tradition and matters that have been long settled in a radical and sudden way. That’s madness and leads to nothing but trouble. But then there’s Israel, a nation created in a radical and sudden way.

The best Sullivan can come up with is this:

The lesson of this, it seems to me, is not … that Israel should be abandoned. The lesson is that its leaders and people need to be sensitive to history, not embittered by it, however justified the embitterment might be. A Burkean could just about defend the creation and endurance of Israel (ending it now would be an even greater rupture than its beginning) but he should also be utterly unsurprised by reaction, resistance and resentment. Conservatives of all people should foresee this. When the lives and homes of hundreds of thousands are permanently and suddenly altered without their permission and against their religious beliefs, they will react. When families are still turfed out of their homes to make way for strangers of a different religious background, rage is a perfectly defensible, and rational, response.

The idea is that history matters, as Cohen said back in 2006:

This is why the Israeli-Arab war, now transformed into the Israeli-Muslim war (Iran is not an Arab state), persists and widens. It is why the conflict mutates and festers. It is why Israel is now fighting an organization, Hezbollah, that did not exist 30 years ago and why Hezbollah is being supported by a nation, Iran, that was once a tacit ally of Israel’s. The underlying, subterranean hatred of the Jewish state in the Islamic world just keeps bubbling to the surface. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and some other Arab countries may condemn Hezbollah, but I doubt the proverbial man in their street shares that view.


My additional point would be that this resistance to the other encroaching on sacred ground is not a unique feature of the Arab psyche. (It is, however, horribly compounded by Islam’s fetish for religious exclusivity on its own territory. This insistence on a religious monopoly on actual regions is much more repellent, it seems to me, than the Jewish people’s search for a small place of their own around their historic capital. Israel, after all, does not ban Islam; Saudi Arabia bans Judaism. Between the relative land-claims of Judaism and the totalist land-claims of Islam, I’m with the Jews, both proportionally and as a matter of simple equity.)

But it is prudentially idiotic for Israel to act as if Arab resentment has no legitimacy or no justification. It is tone-deaf to create a Jewish state in the middle of the Middle East and then behave as if it had been there forever. Israel is not France or Egypt, or even Canada. It is a young and contested idea on ancient, contested land, whose original inhabitants did not all just disappear in a biological holocaust, as in America.

So at least, if Israel is not going away, they might behave a little better:

It does not seem to me therefore nuts to urge a certain respect and tact from Israel toward its neighbors and the populations it displaced – even when it is not reciprocated. I’m not going to go into the long and awful history of the way in which the Arab world has treated Israel from the get-go, but I am saying that to add to the original proposition an ongoing, unstoppable colonization of a further swathe of land won in wartime is obviously against the interests of the Jewish state, and compounds and deepens the resentment from 1948 and 1967 and 1974. Not to see this context, indeed to claim that any and all grievances against Israel’s existence – and, much more significantly, ongoing expansion – are entirely a function of Jew-hatred is to lose any nuance in diplomacy or human relations.

And that’s where they lost him, and others, like Helen Thomas:

It was revealed first by how petulantly even the Kadima-led government responded to Obama’s election. The Gaza war, conceptually defensible, was practically gruesome (Hamas and Israel share that blame), but the unapologetic, almost triumphalist and revengeful manner in which it was conducted and defended was and is shocking, as is the contempt for the wounded and dead on the Mavi Marmara. When your heart is hardened against the corpses of children buried in rubble, it is hardened too much. And the job of a real friend is to point this out, not to enable it.

But that would make Helen Thomas a friend of Israel, or Edmund Burke. That can’t be. She’s just the cranky old curmudgeon in the corner, always angry about something. But then there’s how these things work in the sitcoms. The cranky old curmudgeon says something outrageous, blurting out the truth no one dares say aloud – there’s a problem here – and things change.

But do we want reporters to be cranky old curmudgeons, blurting out questions no one else dares ask? Isn’t that unseemly?

It doesn’t matter. She’s gone.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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