The June 7th anniversary of retirement of Helen Thomas in 2012 and her death on July 20, 2013 still pose some pertinent questions: Do older people automatically acquire Alzheimer's and twisted tongues? Are older people still capable of making meaningful contributions to society?
On June 7, 2010, Helen Thomas, venerable White House correspondent and Washington columnist retired – some sources say that her employer Hearst News Service, forced her to resign- when she made some offensive remarks about Israel and Palestine in an online video.
The Comments about Helen Thomas Were Offensive
A random, reading of comments about the resignation of Helen Thomas at the time on such sites as Politico, and various internet blogs reveals that the reaction to her retirement is equally if not more offensive than her comments. Feedback to her comments features words like: "ugly old hag, senile, crazy old woman, Alzheimer’s, and “this pathetic hag should have retired years ago.” There are several hundred of them, most of them as vitriolic and intemperate as the original remarks that ignited them, some even more so.
Many of the comments are connected by the underlying assumption that people 89 years old- give or take a few years - can not possibly be in control of their faculties and are incapable of fitting words together in a relevant sentence. Therefore, old people should retire to some mindless puttering and not menace society.
The people who think older people have not , can not, and do not make contributions to humanity are guilty of more than ageism. They are guilty of tunnel vision.
Old Political Leaders Whose Tongues Sometimes Slipped
Winston Churchill’s glory years occurred well past the age of 60 when World War Two brought him back into the center of things to help Great Britain survive the Nazi onslaught. His speeches are noted for uplifting the morale of the British people through six long years of war against an evil, equally determined enemy. He said in part …”We shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Winston Churchill was also voted out of office immediately after the war. One of his less popular quotes is: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”
Supreme Court Justices Have Always Accumulated Some Snow on the Roof
In February 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a speech pointing out that six of the nine Supreme Court Justices were over 70. He announced that he intended to ask Congress to pass a bill allowing presidents to expand the Supreme Court by adding one new judge, up to a maximum of six, for every current judge over the age of 60.
His plan failed and Supreme Court Judges are still in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. The current crop of United States Supreme Court Justices are all over 50 and Justice John Paul Stevens, was 90 when he retired in the summer of 2010.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used many controversial and comforting words when he advanced his New Deal Polices and broadcast his Fireside Chats to rally Depression demoralized Americans. He was age 60 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, catapulting the United States into World War II. He effectively used words to mobilize the American people beginning in 1933, when he told them “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He stumbled over very few of his words.
President Ronald Reagan's Soaring Tribute and His Famous Faux Pas
In 1984, during the Cold War, United States President Ronald Reagan, then in his 70s, was getting ready for a radio interview. As a sound check he said, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
He and the sound technicians didn't realize that the microphone was open.
On January 28, 1986, president Ronald Reagan again effectively used his words to unite Americans in mourning the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. He concluded his speech by saying, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
Age and talent often combine effectively despite the ticking of the human biological clock.
Two Old but Accomplished Women
Susan B. Anthony was born February 5, 1820. In 1890 when she was 70, she helped found the National American Woman's Suffrage Association which focused on a national amendment to secure women the vote. She served as its president until 1900. She founded the International Council of Women in 1888, and the International Woman Suffrage Council in 1904, which brought international attention to suffrage.
Born in 1867, by 1911, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for isolating radium and discovering its chemical properties. In 1914, she co-founded the Radium Institute in Paris and became its first director. During World War I Marie Curie and her daughter taught a team of 150 nurses to use X-rays so that bullets could be located in injured soldiers. In 1922, as a member of the French Academy of Medicine she devoted her work to the medical applications of radioactivity.
Helen Thomas, Another Old But Accomplished Woman
Brushing aside politics and controversy, and looking at her bare biographical record reveals that Helen Thomas accumulated decades of service and dedication to her career. A few of her accomplishments include forty years with the United Press International White House team, beginning with President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and ending in 2000 with George W. Bush.
In July 2000, she became a columnist for the Hearst News Service. Helen Thomas traveled around the world with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, covering every economic summit. In February 1972, she was the only newspaperwoman to travel to China with President Nixon during his break through trip.
Helen Thomas was the first woman officer of the White House Correspondents Association in its 50 year history and she served as its first woman president in 1975-1976. She also became the first woman member of the Gridiron Club in its history and the first woman to be elected its president in 1993. She has written several books about her career and the press and in 2008, she brought out her first children's book, The Great White House Breakout.
Will Attitudes Toward Older People and Their Contributions Change?
The United Nations Population Division estimates that over the next 45 years the number of people age 60 or older will almost triple, increasing from 668 million in 2005 to nearly 2.03 billion by 2050. The number of “older” people, older defined as 80 years or older, will soar to unprecedented levels during the next 40 years. The number of women living into very old age continues to rise.
The dramatic shift in demographics needs to be accompanied by changes in public policy to allow for extended working years and the other political and social adjustments that an older population will require. Unfortunately, it may take decades longer for significant changes in the minds and hearts of people to create a country that leaves blatant ageism out of comments about a political slip of the tongue.
Thomas, Helen, Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public, Scribner, 2006.