Helen Thomas, the so-called Dean of the White House Press Corps, will turn 90 years old in less than two months. I bring this up, of course, because Thomas -- who, famously, has covered every president since Dwight Eisenhower -- is currently enduring an artillery barrage of criticism for saying, in a videotaped riff, that Jews ought to "get the hell out of Palestine" and go back to such places as Germany, Poland and the U.S.
The consequences were swift for Thomas, who announced her retirement as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers on Monday, after her speakers' bureau dropped her and a Maryland high school withdrew an invitation to deliver a commencement address.
Thomas has long faced accusations that she's biased against Israel, owing partly to her Lebanese ancestry. Predictably, her critics have seized on her recent remarks as proof that she's a closeted anti-Semite. I think its proof of something much simpler: Nobody that old should be offering unfiltered, off-the-cuff opinions on controversial topics in public.
Of course, it's impossible to assert with confidence that if Thomas were 30 years younger, she wouldn't have said something so nakedly offensive to so many people. But as anyone who has ever cringed in shame at a grandparent's outdated and politically-incorrect racial terminology can attest, being elderly puts you at elevated risk for being out of touch with the times. (I've said before that I think Don Imus, for instance, is less a virulent racist than a hack who doesn't understand what aging white guys can and can't get away with joking about in 2010. By the same token, I don't think, say, Andy Rooney hates blacks, gays or women -- he just grew up in a world where insensitivity to those groups was commonplace.)
And Thomas is pretty darn elderly. Whatever her private views -- and clearly, they're a little wanting in nuance -- she should have realized that blurting them out to someone with a video camera put her at risk of a YouTube takedown. She covers politics, for God's sake. How many candidacies has she seen torpedoed that way by now?
Perhaps Thomas's rant was just a "senior moment" and not reflective of her true opinions. Or perhaps it was a valid statement of her politics. Either way, she has now learned that those who refuse to retire gracefully from public view when the time comes will often find themselves retiring gracelessly in the end. Larry King, are you listening?
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