Even icons have to know when to quit
I expected to remember Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent who retired this week at 89 after holding presidents to account for close to half a century, as a model for my own old age---scrappy, tenacious and relentlessly committed to her craft. "I think I'll work all my life," she once said. "When you're having fun, why stop having fun?" Why, indeed.
I figured Thomas would keep on posing squirm-worthy questions till a heart attack felled her on the spot (cue the obits in praise of an icon and the scholarships in her name). Then the fun turned to ugliness, captured on that infamous video of Thomas declaring that Israel's Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go "home" to other countries---notably Germany and Poland, where Jews were driven from their homes and slaughtered.
What made my skin crawl was not that Thomas had criticized Israel but that she'd invoked the Holocaust while telling Jews where to go. So what if she'd done so unconsciously? A journalist at the top of her game---the so-called dean of the White House press corps and its only member to have a personal chair for briefings---should understand the power of words to wound and divide. I waited for Thomas to show at least a flicker of remorse. Instead she issued a tone-deaf statement in which her "deep regret" sounded more like denial.
Even so, I couldn't suppress a pang of sorrow at the spectacle of Thomas undone by her own folly. At least one old friend denounced her (former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis, who called her an "anti-Semitic bigot"). Meanwhile an angry online mob heaped scorn on the "nasty old witch," "old bat" and "senile old fart." What a pitiful conclusion to a gallant and glorious career.
Unlike today's young female journalists, who expect to cover wars and rip the lid off corporate skulduggery, Thomas started out when newsrooms had no place for women---unless you count the society pages. Yet by age 40 she was covering John F. Kennedy's campaign. She later became the only woman in print journalism to travel to China with Richard Nixon, the first female officer of the National Press Club and the First Female President of the White House Correspondents Association. I could go on but you get the idea---and anyway, I'm not here to introduce Helen Thomas at a podium. Her podium days are over. Sad as that is, she has only herself to blame.
The art of success is not just making it yours. Perhaps even harder is knowing when to leave a job you've loved. The moment will come when you start to repeat yourself because you've hung around too long. And if you're pushing 90, you may well have lost your mental edge.
In her prime Helen Thomas did battle with what she called "the arrogance of power." Yet it seems that in old age she was shackled and shamed by her own arrogance. Speaking her mind had been her badge of courage. Then she crossed an invisible boundary. I wish that she'd seen it in time. I suspect she didn't want to.