In the movie "Animal House," the Deltas are put on trial for their antics. When offered a chance to defend themselves, the best argument the fraternity's president can come up with is, "But sir, Delta Tau Chi has a long tradition of existence to its members and to the community at large."
The line came to mind as I read through the obituaries for Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent for United Press International and, for a decade, a left-wing columnist for the Hearst newspapers.
Thomas did help break down the barriers to women in the D.C. press corps. "Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed," NBC's Andrea Mitchell wrote on Twitter, "woman pioneer journalist broke barriers died today wld have been 93 nxt month RIP."
Obviously it's an exaggeration to suggest that women wouldn't have made so many worthwhile gains in journalism were it not for Thomas. But she was the first female member of a lot of clubs, and that counts for something.
So it was no surprise that the encomiums poured forth in response to the news. From President Obama, the Gridiron Club, the White House Correspondents Assn., Hamas.
Hamas was less interested in Thomas' role as a pathbreaking feminist icon than the fact that, at a 2010 White House Jewish heritage event, she growled into a camera that the Jews should "get the hell out" of Israel (or Palestine, in her telling) and go back to Poland, Germany and America. That statement, cheered by Hezbollah at the time, was too much for Hearst, which quickly ushered her off to retirement, where she cultivated her status as a truth-teller martyred by the Zionists who control everything in America.
In most obituaries this incident comes out of the blue, often chalked up to the fact her parents were Lebanese immigrants (an odd slap at Lebanese Americans). There's no mention that her hatred of Israel, and supporters of Israel, was a constant for most of her career.
Indeed, if you go back and look at many of her famously tough questions of U.S. presidents and press secretaries with that in mind, what seems to many as skepticism about U.S. foreign policy is better understood as special pleading for Israel's enemies. "Thank God for Hezbollah," Thomas told a CNN cameraman in 2002, according to the Washington Post. Israel, she added, was responsible for "99% of all this terrorism." Her first question to President Obama at a press conference referred to members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as "so-called terrorists."
Thomas spent much of her career as the "epitome of the wire service stenographer," then-New Republic writer Jonathan Chait wrote in 2006. Contrary to the myth of the dogged journalist, she wrote mostly puff pieces — about Democratic presidents. She only became a left-wing icon when, as a columnist, she started ranting at the George W. Bush White House.
Despite this, NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, observed in his obituary that Thomas "put a premium on shoe-leather reporting out of view." He failed to mention any stories Thomas actually broke.
The New York Times identified one scoop: Thomas' reports of her phone conversations with Martha Mitchell, the emotionally disturbed wife of Watergate-era Atty. Gen. John Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell had a habit — owing in part to her reported alcoholism — of telephoning whoever would listen to her rants. Most reporters stopped exploiting Mitchell once it became clear how ill the woman was. Not Thomas. She happily transcribed the calls, even reporting how Mitchell's young daughter was begging her mother to get off the phone with Thomas: "Don't talk to her, she's no friend."
Still, as time went by, the awards poured in as she became a Washington institution, with cameos in Hollywood movies and even "The Simpsons." But the "odd thing about her awards and citations," Chait noted, "is that they almost never mention any specific contributions she has made to journalism save for being female and, well, old."
Or as journalist Andrew Ferguson once put it, "Everybody admires Helen, though nobody can tell you why."
The best answer I can come up with: She had a long tradition of existence here in Washington.