No stranger to controversy for speaking her mind, Rosie O’Donnell was one of the few to offer veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas comfort last summer, when Thomas retired under fire for speaking out against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands in a manner that was falsely alleged to be anti-Semitic.
O’Donnell sent Thomas, now age 90, flowers in sympathy for the highly upsetting incident and, along with President Jimmy Carter, was one of only a handful of her longtime colleagues and friends to reach out to her.
So, it turned out to be quite the unexpected encounter at the studios of CNN in New York last week, when a revived Thomas ran across O’Donnell as both, by chance, were guests on the same TV talk show, last Wednesday’s edition of The Joy Behar Show.
Thomas had just finished being interviewed by Behar for 15 minutes about her new job, as a weekly columnist for my newspaper, the mighty Falls Church News-Press, and her strongly held views on current issues and past presidents. She chided President Obama for failing to get out of Iraq and recalled her 50 years covering the White House, including when she was president of the Women’s National Press Club and successfully challenged President Kennedy to boycott an important event at the male-only National Press Club if women were not allowed to participate.
As she exited the studio with her entourage, including me, a CNN assistant came up and said, “There’s somebody here who wants to meet you.” When we got to the green room, O’Donnell burst through the door from the other side and with an irrepressible enthusiasm and fervor charged at Thomas to give her a giant hug.
It was an extraordinary moment, totally authentic with no cameras or recorders running. It was an unforgettable, spontaneous encounter of two of the most important women leaders and role models of our time.
O’Donnell did most of the talking. More than just talking, it was loud and passionate accolades, praises strung together and hurled at Thomas for her pioneering role on behalf of women everywhere. “Don’t let them tell you that you are anything less than an absolutely historic, indispensable pioneer of the cause for the equality of women,” O’Donnell intoned, this admittedly being a paraphrase by me, who was hardly prepared to take careful notes at the moment.
Thomas, who had just come from setting Behar back on her heels in the studio with a sharp, articulate defense of her views, was unprepared for O’Donnell.
Caught off guard by the force of O’Donnell’s love, Thomas got emotional. “You’re making me cry,” she said, truthfully. O’Donnell asked Thomas about her parents as role models for her and her new career with the News-Press. She assured Thomas that when she begins her new talk show on Oprah’s network in the fall, that Thomas will be an honored guest.
Everyone knows that O’Donnell, despite all her daytime Emmys and vast achievements on TV and in the movies, has gotten in her share of hot water for things she’s said, too. But she’s done so much good. She’s made no secret of her lesbian orientation and by so doing has been a role model not only for women, but for everyone in the LGBT world. She’s a crusader for progressive causes, against guns and the invasion of Iraq, and in favor of reforms to make it easier for children to find adoptive parents and live in improved day care conditions. She also works through her For All Kids Foundation and Rosie’s Broadway Kids on behalf of a myriad of opportunities for children.
It is hard in the current scheme of things to take “celebrities” too seriously as authentic human beings. Running across a few in the course of setting up for the Behar interview, I commented that maybe the biggest insult you can hurl at “celebrities” is to say you’ve never heard of them.
But, not that there should be any doubt to begin with, Rosie proved herself to be more than the real deal by the way she embraced and showered Helen Thomas with all that heartfelt love and affection in the green room last week.