The Bigger Picture
Published on July 15th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Today I’m going to discuss President Obama’s recent decision to relieve his top military commander, General Stanley McChrystal, of his command. But before I place the McChrystal story in its proper context, it is incumbent on me that I first pay tribute to a highly respected Washington DC journalist, Helen Thomas, who also just lost her job.
Over the last month I have written a series of columns which were sharply critical of the current Israeli government’s policies towards Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and in particular, Gaza. As a Hearst News Service columnist, Helen Thomas was also a well known critic of Israeli policies such as the Jewish settlements in the occupied West bank, which she likened to Israeli “colonies.” And as an American of Lebanese descent she also criticized America’s normally slavish and unquestioned support for a Jewish state “that oppresses a helpless people with its military power and daily humiliation.”
But Helen Thomas was best known to me, and most other Americans, as the most senior member of the White House press corps who always occupied the center seat on the front row of the White House Press Briefing-Conference Room. She was also usually the first member of the press corps to be called upon to ask a question by each of the 10 US Presidents she covered whenever they held a nationally televised press conference.
Helen Thomas was also a pioneer for women journalists everywhere when she was first assigned to cover President John F. Kennedy. Prior to Helen’s first White House assignment women journalists had previously only been used to cover the President’s wife and the fashions she wore or her activities as First Lady. In other words, pure fluff!
However, despite her long and respected career as a White House political correspondent, Helen Thomas ultimately fell victim to the same ‘gotcha’ journalism that has caused problems for many celebrities and politicians in recent years. In an unguarded moment, Helen let fly with a caustic comment about Israel, which put her in the middle of a cause célèbre after the video of her comments was posted on the web hours later. So instead of covering a White House story, Helen Thomas found out that she was the story.
Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, thanks to the brave new world of web based publishing, public figures in America and many other nations around world no longer have the luxury of unguarded moments when they can feel free to express their true feelings or personal opinions. Although Helen Thomas never actually thought of herself as a public figure or as a celebrity, she found out the hard way that you can’t appear on national television asking the US President questions without becoming one.
Helen Thomas had always been a tough and relentless questioner of both Democratic and Republican Presidents throughout her storied sixty year career at the heart of the American political scene. That’s right. I said sixty years. And therein lies the rub for me as regards her losing her job. She is almost ninety years old for Pete’s sake.
Granted, in expressing her own personal frustration with Israeli policies towards the Palestinian people, her choice of words was definitely inappropriate. Still I have to ask why can’t we just acknowledge that Helen Thomas simply had a “senior moment” and then move on? I mean haven’t we all said something out of anger or frustration at some time in our lives that we later regretted or wish we hadn’t? I know I have.
This leads me to the second subject of this week’s column; General Stanly McChrystal’s departure as America’s top military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. By now many of you, as well as most Americans, are already aware that President Obama was forced to relieve General McChrystal of his military command following the publication of disparaging remarks made by McChrystal and his staff about other members of the Obama administration, including Vice President Joe Biden.
In at least one sense, General McChrystal is also probably the highest level victim to date of the Icelandic volcano ash cloud that halted European air travel back in April. I can understand why you might find this statement hard to believe, so I ask you to delay making any judgments about it until after I have placed the McChrystal story in what I believe is a more proper perspective.
Like Helen Thomas, McChrystal was forced to resign from his job because of the manner in which he expressed his frustration, although in this case it was with the actions of other members of the Obama administration. But the withering comments published in Rolling Stone magazine, which were attributed to General McChrystal and his staff, were also not made during the course of a traditional interview between a journalist and the person they are profiling or writing an article about. As such, at least some members of McChrystal’s staff have complained that they though their remarks were “off the record’, which is a fairly common journalistic practice when sensitive issues are being discussed.
But experienced politicians and government officials who frequently talk with journalists and other members of the press also know that they must preface comments they don’t want publicly attributed to them with the words “This is off the record”. Because General McChrystal and his hand picked staff don’t fit the profile of government officials who frequently commiserate with members of the press, I am therefore inclined to believe that they didn’t realize the stuff they were saying would ever be published.
In fact the Rolling Stone article was actually based on a series of drunken interviews conducted primarily in a Parisian Irish Pub called Kitty O’Shea’s. So why were they in Paris for two weeks? McChrystal had gone to Paris to deliver a NATO speech and meet his wife on their 33rd anniversary. Then he and his staff had to remain there when the volcano ash grounded all flights in Europe.