I was once discussing a home improvement project with a potential contractor, when a date to start the job came up and I mentioned that it was Martin Luther King Day.
The contractor, who is white, then repeated the name of the holiday in an exasperated voice, and added “What will they think of next?”
In one small utterance, this man had given me a window into his soul, and it wasn’t pretty.
Helen Thomas seems to have opened a similar window when, prompted by a rabbi/journalist who seemed to be trying to goad her, she said Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Poland, Germany and America, from whence she believes all of the Palestinians’ troubles derive (perhaps she believes those many Jews from Arab countries, Russia and Ethiopia can stay put).
Evidently there is enough of a paper trail to show that while covering the White House for half a century for the Hearst Syndicate, Thomas, who is of Lebanese ancestry, had a bone or two to pick with Israel, and so it’s unlikely that she simply spoke off the cuff, perhaps in a bad mood, about a nuanced situation in an unsophisticated way that made her sound bigoted. To her credit, she has not invoked the Mel Gibson Excuse and blamed too much sherry at lunch for her lapse in civility and objectivity.
It’s reassuring, and at the same time frightening, to see that at a time when our daily exposure to words is greater then ever, they haven’t lost their individual meaning, and can still make or break a person’s public life. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, known for his sharp tongue, transformed his image in an instant after 9-11 when he sensitively told the public the casualties would be "more than any of us can bear." Bill Clinton sealed the 92 election with the words "I feel your pain." George Bush Sr. planted a landmine in his re-election bid with "read my lips, I will not raise taxes." And one silly word, macaca, proved more influential than dozens of speeches in the 2006 Senate campaign of Virginia’s George Allen, just as "putzhead" had in Al D’Amato’s re-election bid eight years earlier.
Writing in BeliefNet, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield notes that "None of us would survive a test in which the only measure of our lives was a recounting of our worst gaffes." That’s certainly true for me. I’ve made my share of remarks I wish I could take back that were either intended to be funny or just came out wrong, made to friends, relatives or co-workers (and in one case, a governor). Hopefully none of those people believed that what I said was typical of my personality rather than a short outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease. Among the Israel defenders in my acquaintance who are likely incensed about Helen Thomas, I can think of a few who have said worse things about Arabs, or other groups. Should they lose their jobs?
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama made an offhanded remark on The Tonight Show that his bowling was so bad, watching him play was like the Special Olympics. That caused a minor uproar among advocates for the disabled who note the great skill and triumph over adversity of those special athletes.
Coming to his defense, later on the same program, was Special Olympics supporter Arnold Schwarzenegger, who noted that “what matters is not what he says but what’s in his heart, and I know that in his heart he supports the Special Olympics.”
One way to tell an innocent gaffe from a revelation of character is by looking at past history. Mel Gibson’s remarks that the Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world was consistent with the way he insisted on depicting them in his "Passion of the Christ" film and the way he responded to Jews who decried that film. But when, say, comedian Michael Richards launched into a shockingly unfunny n-word-laden routine at a comedy club, there was nothing to suggest a consistent life of racism.
But past history isn’t the only measure. Sometimes a remark so callous and hurtful that it can only reveal prior thought along the same lines. That’s where Helen Thomas’s remarks fall in. At 89 and a major-league journalist, knows full well why Jews choose Israel over Poland and Germany. As Jon Stewart quipped, "If anyone knows why the Jews left it, it’s ‘Mother Time.’ Seriously, Helen, what the f—. You were like 20 when it happened.