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Commentary: Helen Thomas, Again

- By Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's Political Analyst

George Seldes, the great journalist who lived to be almost a hundred and five, said that if you live to be 90, the public forgives all your sins. In some cases, that certainly has been true.

Ronald Reagan’s policies fiercely divided Americans while he was in office, but by the time he died six years ago, he had become  a national icon. But that certainly isn’t always the case.

And sometimes, people’s legacies might have been better if they had lived shorter lives. Take Jack Kevorkian, the apostle of assisted suicide. Had he died fourteen years ago, history would see him differently.  He was regarded as a hero by many people in 1996. Juries had refused to convict him in five separate trials in which there was no doubt whatsoever that he had helped suffering patients commit suicide. Prosecutors in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties said they would no longer press charges against him, making what he did de facto legal.

But Kevorkian then destroyed himself and his cause. He performed euthanasia, videotaped it, sent the tape to 60 Minutes, and forced a prosecutor to charge and convict him.

Now, helping someone die is illegal again, and after spending eight years in jail, Kevorkian is a mostly forgotten nobody.

Helen Thomas is in some ways a similar case. Her epitaph might someday read, “Yes, there is life after 90, but it isn‘t necessarily a good one.” Thomas, who grew up in Detroit, was a journalistic icon for decades. She was the first woman to be White House bureau chief of a major news service, a job she held forty years.
She got women into institutions like the National Press Club and was a helpful and generous colleague.

Years ago, soon after she went to work as a columnist for Hearst, I had dinner with her in Washington. Ironically, she told me that she was having a hard time getting used to expressing her own opinions, after decades of writing strictly balanced straight news.

Tragically, she learned how to do so all too well. Last May, she told a blogger with a video camera that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Germany and Poland. She lost her job over that. What wasn’t then clear was whether that was an out-of-character moment, whether she was challenging Israel’s right to exist, or merely saying it should leave the occupied territories.

Well, now there’s essentially no doubt. Last week in Dearborn, she delivered a clearly anti-Semitic rant, charging that “the Zionists” owned American institutions from the White House to Hollywood.

Wayne State had no choice then but to cut its ties with its famous alumna. Now, I fear she will be exploited now by various groups, who will use the off-the-wall comments of a ninety-year-old to further their own agendas. This is all very sad.

For there was once a woman from Detroit who was fearless, who worked hard, endured ridicule, questioned  Presidents, blazed trails and explained to millions what was happening at the White House. That person may be forgotten now, because of what an older version of herself did in the twilight of her life. And there isn’t very much more that anyone can say.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
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