In the end, Helen Thomas got the last laugh. Before anybody could throw her out of the White House Briefing Room, she denied her critics the pleasure by walking out on her own.

Not even Helen Thomas could defend her hateful comments about Israel. She didn’t even try. She apologized for them. But the glee with which her colleagues in the media tossed her overboard should concern every member of the Fourth Estate, not to mention every lover of the First Amendment.

Thomas’ flippant remarks about all Jews in Israel going “home” to Poland were rightly condemned by both press secretary Robert Gibbs – “offensive and reprehensible” – and the White House Correspondents’ Association – “indefensible.” However, in this day of demanding perfection from every politician or public figure, to condemn is not enough. We must also punish.

Nine Speakers, Thomas’ lecture agency, dropped her like a hot potato. Craig Crawford, her co-author, vowed he’d never work with her again. Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, Md., canceled her scheduled commencement address.

A must-read for news junkies and respecters of reporting’s true purpose: “Gadfly: The Life and Times of Les Kinsolving White House Watchdog”

But even that was not enough to satisfy her detractors. Time magazine’s Joe Klein demanded she be bounced from the front row of the Briefing Room. Former White House Counsel Lanny Davis called for the suspension of her White House press privileges. And former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (“people have to watch what they say, and watch what they do”) said Hearst Newspapers should fire Thomas.

OK, let’s be honest. Helen Thomas is 89 years old. She’s not only old; she’s cranky. She’s a royal pain in the butt. In the Briefing Room, she didn’t raise her hand, and she didn’t always wait her turn. She never bothered trying to couch her questions in the most polite terms. She was often so obnoxious that it was hard to resist the urge to pile on. But, at the risk of being called “an anti-Semitic bigot” myself, I suggest that members of the media think twice before joining the Helen Thomas hanging squad.

Do they really want access to the White House Briefing Room determined by the popularity of a reporter’s expressed, or repressed, political opinions? And, once inside the press room, should where one sits be decided by where one stands on the issues? If Helen Thomas’ critics have their way, they’ll soon be posting signs in the Briefing Room. Front row: “No Opinion.” Second row: “Favorable Opinion.” Third row: “Critical, but Friendly.” All the way to the back row: “Obnoxious. Do Not Call On.”

Frankly, I’m sorry to see Helen Thomas go and consider her absence from the Briefing Room a real loss for journalism today – for two reasons. First, because she brought to the briefings an institutional memory and wealth of experience, dating back all the way to JFK, that nobody else could match. She also blazed a glass-ceiling-shattering trail for women: first female president of the National Press Club, the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents’ Association. Her departure, no matter how ignoble, in no way negates that incredible career.

Second, because – both as reporter and, later, as columnist – she asked important, probing questions no one else would touch, especially on the use of military force. On March 22, 2006, for example, she challenged President George W. Bush: “Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Yet every reason you’ve given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war?” She’s been consistently and equally tough on President Obama over Afghanistan, the war most members of the media have conveniently forgotten.

And just last week, Thomas pressed Robert Gibbs on the administration’s relatively mild response to Israel’s interception of an aid convoy bound for Gaza: “The initial reaction to the flotilla massacre, deliberate massacre, an international crime, was pitiful. What do you mean ‘you regret’ something that should be so strongly condemned?” That blunt question made Gibbs squirm visibly, which only means Thomas was doing her job.

Soon, another correspondent will be named to fill Helen Thomas’ front row, center seat, in the Briefing Room, but they’ll never fill her shoes. Because nobody else will dare ask the same, tough, uncomfortable questions. And without her badgering the president and his press secretary, the American people and their right to know will be the real losers.

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