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.