I have followed the career of the legendary veteran reporter Helen Thomas for many years and have learned from the examples she has set–up to and including the recent mega-blunder that abruptly ended her historic career.
By example, Helen Thomas taught me that women with intelligence, ambition and guts can make groundbreaking advances in male-dominated fields.
She showed me that love and passion for one’s work, coupled with serious pursuit of excellence, engender job satisfaction and career sustainability.
She showed me that showing up every day, even when one is sick, tired or facing treacherous weather, counts for something.
She showed me that having the courage to ask hard questions helps keep people honest.
She showed me that a person can work productively and happily well into her eighties.
Or maybe not.
In her 2006 book, Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public, she observed that the news media are steadily losing their objectivity. The once-bright line between news and commentary is fading, she suggested.
It is no secret that Helen, too, has let more of her personal views spill into her fact-finding and reporting. Like those she criticizes, she has stepped boldly over that once-bright line.
This week, by example, she showed me something I already knew: think before you speak or you could regret it for the rest of your life. Comments made within earshot of anyone can be your demise. Always behave as though your comments are within someone’s earshot–especially if they are tasteless and offensive. Better yet, keep them to yourself.
This week, Helen made a horrific comment about Israeli Jews living in Palestine that cost her the precious remainder of her career, as well as a reputation that was 89 years in the making.
I have long looked up to Helen Thomas for reasons too many to list. I have met her several times and a year or so ago, had occasion to spend time one on one. My limited personal experience is that she is warm, gracious and humble. But to me, what has always stood out about Helen is how much she loves her work.
I will always remember watching an interview in which she was asked how much longer she would work before retiring. I was inspired by her reply, “I will die with my boots on.”
I always thought she’d go abruptly, perhaps right there in the White House Press Briefing Room, notebook and pen clutched in her red-fingernailed hands. A couple of years ago, she returned to work after a serious and extended illness and kept plugging away.
In retrospect, maybe returning to work was a mistake. As people get older, their cognitive wires get crossed, they lose their inhibitions and they can behave in shocking and inappropriate ways.
I am sorry Helen didn’t get to die with her boots on.
Perhaps she should have slipped off the boots, had one heck of a party and enjoyed a well-deserved retirement from a long and distinguished career, before it was too late. Before this is what she would be remembered for.