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How we should remember Helen Thomas

You probably know by now that legendary journalist Helen Thomas died over the weekend, in her apartment in Washington.

She would have ninety-three next month. She spent her forty-first birthday in the place she worked for half a century, the White House, covering President Kennedy.

Kennedy was the first president Helen covered full time, and I am sure she had no idea that on that long-ago Tuesday, the last President she would cover was being born in far-off Hawaii.

Nobody did more to give women journalists their rightful place at the table than Helen Thomas. She went to Washington right after graduating from what is now Wayne State University in the early days of World War II, and got a job working as a copy girl.

Women weren‘t supposed to cover national politics, much less the White House. But she did. Women weren’t allowed to join the National Press Club, till she changed that.

Later, she became the press club’s president. She did daily stories and scored scoops and worked harder than anyone else.

I know that, because I sat next to her often on a trip when we were both covering a whirlwind tour President Reagan made throughout a number of countries in Europe.

I often think about the fact that some lives are too short, while others may live too long, at least as far as their reputation is concerned. Had Jack Kevorkian died after his triumphant court victories, he might be remembered as a courageous pioneer who changed the way we feel about suffering and the end of life.

Instead, he became a strange, self-destructive crank who insisted on performing euthanasia, and spent most of his last years forgotten in a jail cell. Had Helen Thomas died four years ago, she would have been seen as a complete heroine. 

But she then ended her career badly, but appearing to suggest Jews had no right to be in what she called “Palestine” and making the tasteless suggestion they go back to Germany or Poland.

She apologized, but that was the end of her professional career. Some in the Arab-American community sought to use her gaffe for their own political purposes.

Nobody can defend what she said. But I think it would be equally outrageous to allow a few intemperate remarks by a cranky ninety-year-old lady to erase the work of many amazing years. The Helen Thomas I knew worked harder than anyone else, but never failed to make time for young reporters.

She aggressively questioned presidents no matter what their party and ideology. She told me over dinner a dozen years ago that if it wasn’t for the fact that we could question them, “they could and would make themselves kings, or dictators.”

During that meal, by the way, I asked her about being an Arab-American. She stopped me. “I am an American,” she said. “Not a hyphenated American. Just an American.”

She was also a Detroiter, through and through, the working class child of immigrants who took the streetcar to get to the one college she could afford, and went on to be a trailblazer for women and a career nobody could have imagined.

That’s the Helen Thomas I think we should remember.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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