Retirements delayed, careers scarred

Helen Thomas finally retired today. It is not a happy occasion.

It’s dismaying to watch astounding, admirable careers veer into the ditch when a prudent, timely retirement should have happened long before.

A handful of my lifetime sports heroes always comes to mind first. Willie Mays, dropping fly balls and falling down in the outfield for the Mets. Karl Malone, hobbling up the court in a Lakers uniform. Others are death-grip politicians such as Sen. Bob Bennett. He’s 76. She should be playing golf or pinochle, not getting run out of town by Utah’s rabid flat-earthers. Sen. Orrin Hatch is next. He’s old, in the quavering-voice zone. A Pennsylvania retirement villa has his name on it, but I suspect he’ll still be around in 2012 trying to keep his Senate seat, like a cranky old dog clenching a dried-out bone.

The news industry has its own share of uncomfortable downfalls. Dan Rather of CBS was past retirement age when he screwed up a big story during the 2004 presidential campaign. While often controversial, Rather had been in the right place at the right time again and again, with tenacity and drive, to build a 40-year legacy as a hard-hitting network TV force. Now it is a tainted legacy.

The latest saddening derailment is that of Thomas, who forged a well-deserved reputation as a tough questioner of presidents from Kennedy to Clinton. Beyond the theater of incisive questions in presidential press conferences, Thomas was a determined reporter during her storied career with United Press International. She broke countless big stories on the White House beat and had an eerie knack for staying one step ahead of presidential spin machines and her news competitors.

In 1978, as a rookie reporter for UPI at Boise, I got to figuratively hold Thomas’s notebook one day when President Jimmy Carter came to town. She treated me well, without a trace of bigtime arrogance. It was a valuable experience to watch her go about her work that day. Even more memorable were the stories told by the old hands in the Boise bureau who had seen Thomas at work since I was in diapers. They regarded her as probably the best reporter they’d ever seen.

It’s painful now for me to say that Thomas should have retired, for her own good, when she finished up with UPI. But she stayed on the White House beat largely as an independent contractor in a quasi reportorial-columnist role. I cringed at the time, because I selfishly wanted to remember Helen as the impeccable, stalwart, shoe-leather reporter. I did not want to see her opinion writings, or missteps, detract.

Now, she’s 89 years old, still writing and speaking. Too late to retire gracefully, she came under siege this week for intemperate remarks about Israel and Jews. She apologized, but the damage was done. People are running from her in appalled haste. Again too late, today she announced her retirement. When her obituary is written, the legitimate references to her alleged anti-Semitic ramblings will detract from her unsurpassed previous news reporting career.

It’s her own fault. She should have retired when the retiring was good.

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7 Responses to Retirements delayed, careers scarred

  1. Doug Gibson says:

    When she became a Hearst columnist, she should have given up her White House reporters seat at the press conferences. She was an opinion columnist who was mainly published by the Seattle Times, Boston media and smaller markets. I don’t think she’s going way. I expect her, while healthy, to give a lot of speeches, write some, and probably maintain positions that cost her the Hearst position.

  2. Bob Becker says:


    I think you can add David Broder to the list of hangers on who should have hung it up a while ago. He was once a first rate columnist. He hasn’t been that, on national affairs, for some time now.

    You’d think people, the best in their fields, would have the sense to recognize when their skills begin to fade, and so summon up the determination to go out, while, if they’re no longer playing their best game, they’re still pretty damn good. Sadly, as you note, too many do not.

  3. Charles Trentelman says:

    george will increasingly sounds as if he were mugged by a thesaurus. Beyond baseballcolumns, he also should hang it up.

  4. Mike says:

    Sinefeld did the classy thing…he bowed out while still in demand. One of the hardest things I had to learn is I AM NOT MY OCCUPATION!

  5. Bob Becker says:


    Ah, but many people are their occupations. Or think they are. Consumer Reports Money Adviser, most recent issue, includes a survey of retirees, and about one quarter of them said what bothered them most about retirement was “loss of identity without my job.”

    Nearly half a century ago now, as a newly minted history professor just beginning to be asked to give talks and speeches [to professionals and to the general public], I got some good advice from a colleague about to hang ‘em up. “Always leave your audience wishing you’d said a little bit more,” he told me, ” instead of wishing you’d said a little bit less.” [ Not a whole lot of academic speakers do that..]

    Change “said” to “hung around” and that advice applies to careers too.

  6. protobone says:

    Jeez Mark, what a crock. You know, a crock of swill. Ms. Thomas spoke her mind to a rabbi that set her up with a rather curiously loaded question. Ms. Thomas did NOT say anything wrong. Israel MUST get the “hell” out of Palestine. Doofus rabbi doesn’t have “press credentials” and his questions to her were ‘off the record’. Oh yeah.
    So why should she have to “retired when the retiring was good?” Because you didn’t like what Ms. Thomas said? Well aren’t you Mr. ‘arrogant’.
    Golly Mark, you must be an anti-aging fascist. Certainly seems you have some seriously “critical” issues with anyone over the age of what you deem relevant. Or possibly whomever must now be put out to pasture. What might Willy Mays or Karl Malone have to do with journalism? Journalism is what Helen Thomas is about and does very well.
    Ms. Thomas made the indelicate mistake of criticizing “Israel.” Oh how icky of her. Israel deserves every last criticism they receive for murder, piracy, and terrorism in international waters. Those Israeli commandos KILLED an American citizen. So as always happens anytime that Israel goes murderously insane, the vast and idiotic American infoentertainment lickspittles go into overdrive to “protect” those precious Israelis. Hmmm, one could conclude that you might be one of “those.”

  7. Mark Shenefelt says:

    Hey, protobone, you’re doing some serious mind-reading.

    Helen hasn’t done much reporting since she left UPI. She became a columnist. Now she will be remembered as a controversial opinion writer as much as she will an exceptional White House beat reporter. I was commenting on her career disintegration and how saddening it was for me, regardless of the reason(s) for it. It’s humorous to be seen as taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian saga.

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