Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Gonna Walk Before They Make Me Run: On Helen Thomas And Retirement

Because of my grown niece, a second wave feminist in a third wave body, I took an interest in Helen Thomas a few years back. Third Wave Niece, a Smith grad, is very into biographies of interesting women who have battled their way through to careers that are characterized by their maleness -- journalism, politics, and whatnot. So I purchased a copy of Thomas's Front Row At The White House: My Life And Times (Scribners, 2000) and read it. A lively account of her career with UPI, it's a great history of journalism from one woman's point of view. But it's also graphic example of all the ways women were locked out of professional life in structural ways until federal legislation, and lawsuits filed under that legislation, literally permitted them in the room. As Thomas (a not particularly ideological feminist) broke down those barriers in political reporting, women streamed in behind her. I remember back in 1979, thinking that we at Oligarch's college newspaper might just elect the first woman to chair the editorial board less than a decade after women had been admitted to the university at all. It was not to be, and we elected a fine man. But the woman we didn't elect, and numerous others (including Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post) went on to fine careers in journalism through the doors opened by Thomas and her contemporaries.

But over the years, Thomas -- who had a reputation for asking "tough" questions -- became less of a reporter than a nostalgic symbol of what journalism used to be. This was particularly the case after she quit UPI and signed on as a columnist for Hearst. She was cultivated by successive White House press secretaries as a kind of mascot and news-granny, an annoying but beloved old cat that is always leaving fur in your favorite chair. Helen asked the tough questions, sure, but because only Helen asked the tough questions, presidents and press secretaries were also able to reply to them as if they were eccentric. Perhaps you remember --as I do -- spinmeister Ronald Reagan responding to a much younger Thomas's questions with an indulgent smile and a "We-e-ell Helen (a-heh-heh-heh) I don't know whether (a-heh-heh)...."

Now Thomas has, as Jonathan Ferris coined the phrase in And Then We Came To The End, been "made to walk Spanish." Or rather, she has abruptly retired, after having gone on record as anti-Israel (in a particularly cruel way) with Rabbi David Nesenoff after a White House Jewish heritage event. View the video here courtesy of RabbiLive.com. George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made sure that Thomas's remarks got out to the mainstream media; Bill Clinton's former press secretary (talk about a job from hell) Lanny Davis followed Sunday with a statement that "Thomas, who he used to consider a close friend, 'has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot.'"

Do we think maybe none of these guys really liked Thomas after all? She resigned from Hearst on Monday.

Gone the special chair, the distinctive red dresses, the ritual first question. Of course, what happened was nothing new. As most reports of the incident note, Thomas -- the daughter of Lebanese immigrants -- has always been a sharp critic of Israel and of U.S. support for Israel's foreign policy. What pushed things over the edge was not her anti-Israel statements, but her colossal error in judgement in suggesting that the people of Israel "go home" to Germany and Poland. Oh -- and to America, which would be a better idea because there weren't any extermination camps there.

Surely it was a set-up: beware of clerics carrying video cameras, is my advice, and do your best not to say noxious things when you are being taped. I do agree with the many people who are arguing that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh say horrid things in public all the time, and no one is calling for their resignation. Yet if, at the age of 89, Thomas is no longer able to distinguish between suggesting that the descendants of Holocaust survivors return to the site of their ancestors' murder and appropriately partisan political statements about Israel's neo-imperialist policies in Gaza and the West Bank, one suspects that it is long past time for her to go.

Why hasn't someone had the kindness to make that happen before now? Answer: it takes guts to remove an iconic figure. Few people do it, even when they know they should. This is, of course, a common problem in the academy. Venerable professor famous for irascible personality and eclectic remarks goes right over the edge one day and has to be forcibly retired, when in fact the signs of ineffectiveness and mental decline have been clear to close colleagues for several years: inappropriate remarks, fits of rage and/or confusion, memory lapses of gargantuan proportions. And yet, you go to the administration and say, "Hey, I think we have a problem" and administrators claim their hands are tied because of tenure, academic freedom, blah, blah, blah. I have a friend who made this lonesome trek year after year, recounting numerous horror stories that appeared in the teaching evaluations or were related by befuddled students about Famous Professor X, and was repeatedly sent away with a condescending lecture about age discrimination. In one of these meetings, an administrator said to my friend sharply, "Are you a doctor? What makes you think you know what is going on?"

"Oh," s/he replied casually: "Venerable Professor doesn't recognize me anymore, and s/he recently asked the administrative assistant who she was and why she was robbing the department office." Needless to say, nothing happened until said faculty member let loose a blistering stream of muddled hate speech at a stunned group of first-year students who fled the room weeping and dropped the class en masse.

The argument that prim little Ari Fleischer made about ejecting Thomas from the White House press corps is that she has lost her objectivity. The truth is that Thomas has not been objective for years -- she has been strongly opinionated, a useful foil who allowed conservatives and neo-liberals alike to articulate themselves against her. That has in many ways made her an asset, especially to conservative presidents, and to a White House press corps that either doesn't like to ask the hard questions, or doesn't really care to report or think very hard about the answers. The real problem is that Helen Thomas has lost her good judgment -- and while this is not the case for everyone who is 89, we should all see this as a lesson about retiring before we do something awful that allows people to give us the old heave-ho.

What a value added it was for Republicans to make Obama kick the little old lady out of the White House too! If he would only return Bo to the breeder while PETA films his weeping children, a Republican sweep in November will be assured.

But the real moral of the story is for everyone over 50: age narrows most of us more than we can possibly be aware of. It trims away the subtleties and politesse that can make the most extreme things we believe bearable to others. It causes to overestimate our authority, and underestimate the destruction our words cause. It makes us arrogant, because younger people don't want to tell us that we are finished, even as we become caricatures of ourselves. My advice? Pick a retirement age now and stick to it, knowing that you will get out while people still remember you for the best things that you were. Keith Richards says it better than I ever could: this is for you, Helen.


Katrina said...

The idea of being forced from a job because I - in some elderly haze - make some outrageous comment makes me shudder. I like your idea of sticking to a retirement age.

You (and Peter Conn) also inspired me to write a bit about academic retirement here http://post.ly/iqZp

margotdarby said...

A simpler interpretation of Helen Thomas's comment is that it had always been on her mind, but she kept mum till now. She is a Christian Arab, after all, with roots more or less in Palestine.

Tenured Radical said...

Nice post Katrina: my only point of disagreement is that I don't think that older people hanging on is the real problem with the job market (although it is aggravating): many people who have retired over the past two decades have been replaced with adjuncts, part timers and non-tt faculty.

Sallie: agreed, but I think that is the point of my post -- although I wouldn't assume that being Arab descended (methinks she was born & raised in the US) is the dominant story here.

Dr. Koshary said...

Well stated, TR. This struck me very much as a case of an elderly person losing some of her good judgment of what is appropriate to say out loud or how. Everyone knows that she has always been more sympathetic to Palestine than to Israel, including Ari Fleischer. But time was when Thomas knew exactly what to say at the right time -- that's part of what made her an effective journalist.

Somehow, I have trouble believing that she's truly as bigoted as her awful statement suggests. Perhaps I prefer to believe that Thomas is losing a few of her marbles and can no longer order her thoughts properly, rather than think that she's always held such nasty ideas and just lost some of her filter.

sreverby said...

I heard Betty Friedan speak in her last year of life. I kept thinking: please let my friends pull me off the stage before I get like this. We all need help knowing when it is time to do something less public. I hope my friends force me out before I do something really stupid in public, or even worse, look like I am in my dotage.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Thomas’s comments amounted to a “colossal error,” but apparently only because she expressed herself, as the Radical notes, “in a particularly cruel way.” Contrast this with the more PR-friendly rhetoric we get from the Zionists. Mike Huckabee, for example, said this in 2008: “There is only one place on earth where the Jewish people could have a homeland that is consistent with their roots, whereas the Palestinians can create their homeland in many other places in the Middle East, outside Israel.” Translation: The Palestinians should get the hell out of Israel. Will any public figures demand Huckabee’s resignation from his show on Fox because he is an anti-Palestinian bigot? Of course not. I can't support Thomas’s unfortunate turn to the language of expulsion—angrily made in the context of the Gaza flotilla massacre—but in criticizing her, we should acknowledge the total hypocrisy on this issue in U.S. public discourse.

JackDanielsBlack said...

I think it is condescending (not to mention ageist) to assume that Helen Thomas said what she did because she is getting senile. I think she knew exactly what she was saying and meant every word of it. A few years ago she said that after 50 years she was finally going to start saying what she thought, and so she did.

Much of Thomas' bickering with the Bush administration (which unlike the current administration held regular press conferences) had to do with Palestine and the Middle East. "Thanks for expressing the Hamas point of view" was, if I recall correctly the WH press secretary's response to one of her questions.

Though I disagree with her latest statements, I can understand why she made them, given her background. If someone had asked Sitting Bull before the battle where he thought Custer and his troops belonged, he would probably have voiced similar sentiments. Where is all that liberal understanding of context and background when it is needed?

Who is more condescending, the presidents who didn't take Helen seriously because she was a woman, or the folks who don't take her seriously now because they say she is too old to think straight?

Tenured Radical said...

Well, I guess some of us have a sense of what is appropriate to say (or not say) that is not necessarily contingent on the constraints of our profession.

Suggesting that Israeli citizens "go back" to Germany and Poland was cruel and bigoted, which in my mind is not the same thing as advocating for Palestinian rights or critiquing Israel's foreign and domestic policies. Even if what she said was entirely intentional, it was out of control.

Anonymous said...

“Suggesting that Israeli citizens ‘go back’ to Germany and Poland … is not the same thing as advocating for Palestinian rights or critiquing Israel's foreign and domestic policies”

Yes, right on, TR. But I do hope I live to see the day when publicly advocating a “transer” of Palestinians out of Israel or otherwise humiliating them will likewise cost someone their high-profile media job. After all, endorsing the Gaza blockade, for example, is far from upholding the citizenship rights of Israeli Jews. Alas, I’m not holding my breath.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Well, that's a very radical position, TR -- let's make sure that we always stay in control! Glad to see that you are in agreement with Sarah Palin and the neoconservatives on this matter, at least.

If the U.S. were to offer Jewish Israelis the opportunity to become citizens of the U.S. or Germany (not so sure about Poland) as Ms. Thomas suggested, what percentage do you think would accept? I suspect that such an offer would solve this problem.

Anonymous said...


If Israeli citizens _want_ to emigrate, they can do so any time they wish. What Thomas implicitly proposed was the dissolution of the state of Israel. She called for the Jews to go "back home" as if Israel were not their home. It's depressing that this has to be explained over and over again.

Anonymous said...

TR - I like your idea of setting your own retirement age. The assumption, when you land a tenure track job, is that it means "employment for life" and that you can teach and research for as long as you want. But certainly, that is not always a good idea and not just in terms of senility or declining mental faculties.

In your teens and twenties, you are doing and thinking of one set of problems. Then the middle stage (30s-60s) you are making a career and a community. After the 60s, no matter what you have to think of a new phase of your life, when its again time to do something else.

So setting a retirement date is a good idea, because then you can plan on what you want to do with the last decades of your life, rather than muddling through. T

balanced said...

Am I the only one who sees her comments as related to some degree of dementia?

Anonymous said...

The creation of Israel was the greatest mistake the UN ever made and the last vestige of European colonialism. That being said, Israel has been a state for 60 years and is not going away. However, the US does not have to prop it up and could do much to encourage both Israeli Jews and Palestinians to be better neighbors.

As for Helen Thomas, she said what she thought and has paid the price. So much for free speech in the Good Ole USA. Yes, we should all be responsible for what we say, but the price she had to pay was too much.

davidjhemmer said...

Other than being around a long time and asking "tough questions" can anyone tell me what Helen Thomas accomplished? I keep hearing but a distinguished career she had but I don't see any evidence, did she break any important stories, write any important books?