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Published: Wednesday, 6/9/2010

Ms. Thomas' gaffe

HELEN Thomas is a legendary, trailblazing woman journalist who covered presidents for almost half a century. She was forced into retirement this week after a video surfaced of an appalling slur in which she made remarks that appeared tasteless and stupid, if not openly anti-Semitic.

Last month, Ms. Thomas was asked for her views on Israel as part of a White House Jewish Heritage Day project. She told a rabbi with a video camera: "They should get the hell out of Palestine. It's not their land."

Worse, Ms. Thomas, a native Detroiter whose parents were Arab immigrants from Lebanon, suggested that Jews go back to "Poland, Germany ... America and everywhere else." That was especially shocking, given that millions of Jews from Poland and Germany died in those countries during the Holocaust.

The video emerged last weekend and quickly went viral. Her agent dropped her. Hearst Newspapers announced Monday that she was retiring immediately. It was a sad end to a storied career. Ms. Thomas turns 90 on Aug. 4, and a gala celebration of her life and work had been planned.

It was, in fact, probably time for her to retire. Criticizing Israeli policies is fair game, but what she said was clearly wrong. Still, it would be unjust to allow one appalling mistake to blot out the record of a brilliant career.

For years, Ms. Thomas closed every White House press conference with: "Thank you, Mr. President." She asked hard questions when few others would, during presidential crises from Watergate to the Iran-contra fiasco.

She was, for a time, virtually the only reporter who asked President George W. Bush why the Iraq war was necessary. How could he be so sure Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? The nation might have been better off if more journalists had pressed the president harder on such issues.

Ms. Thomas ended her career with a sad misstep. But women would do well to remember what a pioneer she was, especially for other women.

One of Ms. Thomas' favorite sayings was: "Democracy dies behind closed doors." Many doors, including those to the National Press Club and Gridiron Club, were closed to women until she helped force them open. That, more than one terrible video moment, is how she should be remembered.

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