Have you ever seen a White House press conference and looked around the press corp when the camera pans out? Ever noticed an old reporter sitting in the front row that looks comically out of place, like she is the quiet elder presiding over her grandchildren? That’s Helen Thomas, who covered Dwight Eisenhower and is going on her 50th year as a member of the White House Press Corps. Or was. She just did the old “I’m retiring now…and, um…in no way is this retirement a convenient reaction after my controversial remarks a few days ago.”
A few days ago, in what looked like a Tom Green interview, she was asked what she thought about the recent violence in Israel and responded with, “[The Israelis] should get the hell out of Palestine.” Where should they go? “Poland. Germany.”
Okaaaaay. Gotcha, Helen…
You don’t have to be a history buff to know that there is a pretty awful reason why the Jews left Poland and Germany in the first place. And you also don’t have to be a student of Middle Eastern politics to know that leaving Palestine is not like stepping off someone’s lawn. You do, in fact, have to be a student of Middle Eastern history to understand all the twists and turns and wars and violence and everything else that leads to our tangled situation between the Jews and Arabs on the western banks of the Mediterranean today. Her remarks were painfully insensitive and markedly obtuse. But—and let’s forget that she was near retirement anyway—why did she have to resign?
She doesn’t represent shareholders or a large group other than Hearst as an employee. Hearst has the right to send her on her way, for sure, but this is a case where she was really an institution of the White House press corp. Obama brought her cupcakes on her birthday. Her paycheck came from Hearst, but she worked at the White House—that’s whose image suffered with her comments. But if we look at what she said, she didn’t wish anyone harm. She didn’t push for any sort of violence. However crass, she expressed a widely held belief from across the world and—yes—this country, that Israel does not have the right to be in Palestine. This is an opinion. You may agree with her and you may disagree with her. You may VEHEMENTLY disagree with her. But what can’t be disagreed with is that she had a right to say it.
And that is the problem with her extemporaneous resignation. We are setting a precedent that says, “If you run counter to any of the taboo, over-arching beliefs of this White House, then you can get the hell out.” That doesn’t feel right. This is where the No Drama Obama White House should have stepped to the mic, given their emphatic disagreement and moved on. It would have been a lot more powerful if Robert Gibbs, or even Obama himself, had started the next daily press conference by looking her in the eye and saying, “Helen, and other members of the press, the White House absolutely disagrees with the comments you made yesterday about Israel. Next question…” Then you’ve preserved someone’s rights and exhibited your own. Freedom of speech should only be limited when it puts others in harms way. Otherwise, it is an opinion—something everyone, even the press, should have a right to exercise. To open the door that members of the press are screened because they move 180 degrees to the policy of an administration—or the majority of the country—is just wrong and not different than many of the criticisms levied against the Bush White House for their press shenanigans. She may have something ridiculous to say, but she has every right to say it.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at