42 Seconds That Sullied Helen Thomas -- and New Media

42 Seconds That Sullied Helen Thomas -- and New Media

By Paula Cruickshank - July 31, 2013

When Helen Thomas died on July 20, the tributes properly credited her for breaking the glass ceiling for women journalists and for being willing to ask the tough questions at the White House, no matter who was president, since John F. Kennedy occupied the Oval Office.

Most of the obituaries invariably discussed the late-in-life encounter that ended her career as a working journalist, one captured on video and shared with the world via YouTube -- the infamous 2010 episode in which she called on Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine.”

Unlike the 1.8 million people (and counting) who have watched that video, I was present when it occurred. I am the unidentified reporter in the video who was with Thomas when the whole thing happened.

Helen, as those of us who covered the beat invariably called her, often posed questions at presidential news conferences or the daily White House press briefings that left little doubt where she stood on an issue. Her personal views were particularly transparent regarding Middle East politics, whether it was asking about new Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip or the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet to hear Helen choose such inflammatory words during a chance encounter with a rabbi and two young men accompanying him only seconds after they had engaged in a friendly conversation about journalism was a surprise -- both when it happened, and how it was portrayed afterward.

Nearly 90 years of age at the time, the dean of the White House press corps was frail, but also too proud to accept her physical limitations. So when President Obama held a news conference on May 27, 2010, Helen was determined to negotiate the steep cement steps leading from the press room up to the East Room. Seeing her struggle on the stairs, on a day when temperatures hovered in the 80s, I offered my assistance, which she accepted. I held on to her left arm as she walked slowly to the stately room with its crystal chandeliers and gilt-edged chairs.

When the news conference ended, I offered to help Helen retrace our steps. “Are you sure you have time to do this?” she kept asking me. I replied that I had plenty of time before my deadline as we inched along the sidewalk on the North Lawn.

That is where we ran into Rabbi David Nesenoff. He had accompanied his 17-year-old son and his son’s friend, who were attending a White House reception celebrating Jewish Heritage Month. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, “Nesenoff asked the White House if he could join his son, explaining that otherwise he would be stuck outside the whole day waiting to drive him home.”

As Nesenoff approached us from a distance, I could hear him pointing out my companion to his son and his son’s friend. “Here is the world-famous reporter, Helen Thomas,” the bespectacled, soft-spoken rabbi said.

As they approached us, Nesenoff asked, “Any advice for these young people over here for starting out in the press corps?” Despite the heat, Helen stopped in her tracks and encouraged the young men to pursue the field of journalism.

“Go for it. You'll never be unhappy,” she said. “You’ll always keep people informed.” Helen continued to converse with them, and listen attentively, and while I stood by her, my right arm wrapped around her left for support.

Nesenoff turned to her and mentioned the reason the young men were at the White House. “Are they going to meet the president?” she asked.

Before the boys could answer, Nesenoff suddenly switched topics.

“Any comments on Israel? We’re asking everybody today,” he said while the young men stood next to him wordlessly. I could only make out the tail end of his question, catching the word “Israel” -- but I very clearly heard Thomas’s terse and pointed reply about “getting out” of Palestine.

I was taken aback. Only a few seconds ago, they were discussing journalism. Why the sudden shift in gears?

“Ooh, any better comments than that?” Nesenoff asked with a touch of amusement in his voice. I was puzzled now because both of them seemed to be getting along just fine again, and I still wasn’t sure about the nature of his question.

I also didn’t understand why anyone who recognized Thomas and ever listened to her pointed questions wouldn’t already know her views on Israel. “Helen is blunt,” I said, with a nervous laugh, trying to smooth over an awkward situation and at the same time offer a plausible explanation for what had just transpired.

“Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, and it’s not Poland,” Helen continued.

“So where should they go? What should they do?” Nesenoff inquired.

She answered: “They could go home.”

“Where is their home?”

Helen replied: “Poland, Germany.”

Nesenoff pressed her further. “So the Jews -- you're saying Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?”

“And America and everywhere else,” she answered. “Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?”

Thomas looked directly at the young boys with a smile when she said this, as if her logic alone would compel them to wholeheartedly agree with her. Then, to my relief, the conversation with the rabbi ended as it began -- cordially. Thomas turned and shook hands with the rabbi’s son and friend. She parted with one more bit of advice:

“Go for journalism. You’ll never regret it.”

When the remarks she made to Nesenoff went viral, Helen had no choice but to resign from her job as a columnist for Hearst. After nearly 50 years in the White House press room, she gave up her front-row, center seat.

For a long time, I couldn’t make sense of what happened that day. The entire exchange between the rabbi and Thomas lasted less than a minute. I looked at the YouTube video repeatedly -- both versions. (Nesenoff launched an edited version on his website first. The full video was released several days after Thomas stepped down on June 7.)

One thing bothered me from the first time I heard a news report about the exchange on a radio station. The initial news stories depicted it as a “White House interview.” In an interview on June 7 with Yahoo News, Nesenoff said he “didn’t know about Thomas’s strident Israel views but approached the 89-year-old journalist for an interview because she is ‘an icon of the White House.’ ”

Only it wasn’t an interview. It was a conversation.

A few weeks after the May 27 reception, Nesenoff wrote a piece in the Washington Post noting the White House had issued him press credentials for the day since his son had been given a temporary pass. But with press privileges comes professional responsibility.

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Paula Cruickshank is a former White House correspondent for a Washington-based legal publication.

Paula Cruickshank

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