By Leonard Pitts Jr.
Here’s some bitter irony for you. Back in April, I received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award. Yes, diversity. And yes, Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent who recently nuked her career – and legacy – by telling a rabbi, following a Jewish heritage ceremony at the White House, no less, that the Jews of Israel should, in effect, go back where they came from.
Life sure takes some funny bounces. Two months ago, I was honored to receive an award in the name of a woman who has asked combative questions of every president since Kennedy. Two months later, receiving a Helen Thomas award in the spirit of diversity feels not unlike receiving a Kim Jong Il award in the spirit of diplomacy.
I sat in that ceremony on the campus of her alma mater, Wayne State University, listening as speakers lauded Thomas, who is of Lebanese heritage, as a path maker for women and Arabs. When it was my turn to speak, I recounted how I saw her at an office party once and how I, who don’t get starstruck, who have interviewed Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett and Barack Obama, could not bring myself to introduce myself.
It is – and the fact that I am the hundredth person to say this makes it no less true – sad to see such a storied career end in rubble. But given the mess she made, given the tidal wave of opprobrium that washed over her, last week’s decision to retire was pretty much the only option left. And how bizarre is it that Thomas, who asked so many tough questions over the years, was tripped up by an absolute softball.
“Any comments on Israel?” asked Rabbi David Nesenoff, in the video that is now all over the Internet.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” said Thomas.
A moment later, Nesenoff asked where the Jews should go. “They should go home,” she said. “Poland, Germany.”
It was a stunningly obtuse remark, given that the Jews were driven out of those nations seven decades ago by history’s greatest act of mass murder. When I was in Poland five years ago, it was still possible to walk on cobblestones made of grave markers looted from Jewish cemeteries and to see graffiti that read, JUDEN RAUS! Jews, out!
All that said, there is a temptation to let the 89-year-old legend slide, to give her what I will call the old-person pass. After all, which of us doesn’t have an Uncle Clint or Aunt Molly who still uses language or expresses opinions that were perfectly respectable back in 1935 but reprehensible today? You just shine it on. You don’t even bother correcting them anymore.
But Uncle Clint and Aunt Molly are usually removed from the workaday world. At the very least, they do not occupy the national stage.
For many years now, elder Americans have quite rightly resisted being shoved out of that workaday world just because they reached some arbitrary age. But the corollary is that you don’t get an exemption for that age, don’t get to use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, when you foul up.
Besides, we are told by Thomas’ peers in the White House press corps that there is nothing new about the anti-Semitism she displayed. To the contrary, it was apparently very well known to her colleagues. As Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, “She’s always said crazy stuff.”
So apparently, she’s already received the old-person pass. And the icon-of-journalism pass too, no doubt.
But if you consider bigotry a cancer of the human spirit, then at some point, you have to call people on their garbage. Even when they are old. Even when they are beloved. Even when they are legendary.
The spirit of diversity demands no less.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com. Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.