The Complicated Legacy Of Helen Thomas


How does an American political historian cope with the death of Helen Thomas?

She was a pioneer for female journalists, an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter, an astute observer of Washington's grimy, smarmy underbelly who had personally interrogated every president since John F. Kennedy. When Stephen Colbert used the third act of his legendary 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner speech to pay her a tongue-in-cheek tribute, few in the press corps doubted that the honor was well deserved. Thomas embodied the best tradition of newsroom skepticism, the school of thought that continued to live by H. L. Mencken's undeniable aphorism, "The only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down."

Oh, and she hated Jews.

Before this article digresses too deeply into a disquisition on the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, allow me to quickly point out that I do not think all criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. Indeed, I believe that many individuals who offer valid criticisms of the Jewish state — from Jimmy Carter on the left to Ron Paul on the right — have been wrongly attacked as bigoted for doing so. Even if one doesn't share their particular views on the subject (which certainly applies to me), it's always important to distinguish between people who disapprove of what the Israeli state has done, and those who extend that to a general attack on Jews. The former position is not inherently bigoted, while the latter is indisputably so. In that vein, when Thomas went on her infamous little rant saying the Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and that they should "go home [to] Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else," she revealed herself guilty of a repulsive prejudice. She wasn't simply arguing that Israel was wrong for this or that particular policy or action, she was saying that the Jews who currently reside in that nation shouldn't even be there. This was a disgusting sentiment, one that no decent human being could in good conscience condone or excuse.

And yet does this diminish her overall legacy?

This is a subject that I've broached before (particularly in this article which I co-authored with fashion blogger Tillie Adelson), but in light of Thomas's death, it warrants a second evaluation. After all, unlike so many of the other public figures who have been disgraced by revelations of bigotry over the past few years, Thomas was someone who I had actively admired. Even before the Colbert speech gave her wider public attention, I had known her name and read about her accomplishments. Inside of every political history Ph.D. there is a child carrying far more books out of his school library than his little arms can carry, and whenever my wandering took me to the American studies section, Thomas's name repeatedly came up. While I wouldn't have called her a hero of mine, I was deeply hurt and disappointed by what she said — hurt because I am Jewish myself, and disappointed because her legacy would be forever tarnished in my eyes (a position I would like to think I would have held even if she had not been disparaging my particular heritage).

As I reflect back on her career, though, my mind pulls up an anecdote about a somewhat dissimilar figure. Unlike Thomas, this individual is an actual hero of mine, and has been ever since I picked up my (now-worn-out) Library of America paperback collection of his speeches at my local Barnes and Noble. His name was Abraham Lincoln — I'm going to go out on a limb and presume that he requires no introduction — and there is probably not a single human being, save only myself, about whom I know more meaningless minutiae than the Railsplitter. Most of them are fascinating and inspiring (hence my admiration for him), but more than a few are pretty unflattering. For example, there was this incident that he recalled from the autobiographical pamphlet he composed for his 1860 presidential campaign (which, in true Bob Dole-esque fashion, he wrote in the third person):

It was in connection with this boat that occurred the ludicrous incident of sewing up the hogs eyes. Offutt bought thirty odd large fat live hogs, but found difficulty in driving them from where [he] purchased them to the boat, and thereupon conceived the whim that he could sew up their eyes and drive them where he pleased. No sooner thought of than decided, he put his hands, including A. at the job, which they completed — all but the driving. In their blind condition they could not be driven out of the lot or field they were in. This expedient failing, they were tied and hauled on carts to the boat.

One can go on and on about how popular conceptions on animal rights were different in Lincoln's era than they are today, and how if one can pardon his occasionally backward views on race by contextualizing them with his time, then one should be able to do the same thing with his torturing of pigs. All of this, though, misses the big point: How can I still admire Abraham Lincoln knowing that he did something that I find to be truly monstrous?

The answer, I suspect, is to remember that homo sapiens are complex animals. Despite the stringent moral demands made of us by the various social institutions which exist in the times we inhabit, each of us possesses numerous dimensions — some of them light, some of them dark, most of them neutral, and more than a few at odds with each other. Of course, there isn't anything inherently contradictory about being a great journalist and a Jew-hater, or a great president and a pig mutilator. But these aren't just bits of useless trivia — they reveal the inner quality of an individual soul. Since we like to admire souls as well as minds, the discovery that someone's dark side plunged to such loathsome depths is always heartbreaking. At the same time, it should never obscure the clarity with which we perceive those who have contributed greatly to our world before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Rest in peace, Helen Thomas.