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Staying too long at the party: a clear and ever-present danger

Men/woman of a certain age: Larry King, Betty White, Andy Rooney

It can be tough to know when to go.

Some have an innate sense of timing. Others linger too long, tempting both fate and their legacies.

Helen Thomas, until very recently the 89-year-old dean of the Washington press corps, provides the latest cautionary tale of someone who just couldn't let go until her mouth ran amuck on the subject of what Israeli Jews should do with themselves.

She subsequently apologized and then retired. Assorted colleagues are now saying that her questions at presidential press conferences had become "embarrassing" in later years. Still, they deferred to her, with Thomas continuing to occupy a front row seat with her nameplate on it. Even though she had become an almost invisible columnist -- rather than a workaday reporter -- in her later years.

It didn't have to be this way, and it doesn't mean that advancing age should be a one-stop ticket to retirement. The "second acts" of Betty White, 88, Joan Rivers, 77 and Clint Eastwood, 80, obviously have been fruitful. But while partying on, they also have the luxury of deciding when, where and how much to work.

Thomas clearly stayed too long at the party, ultimately letting her sense of entitlement betray her. It no doubt felt good to be queen, and even better to be in the presence of presidents who still called on her because she is, after all, Helen Thomas.

Her entire career won't be negated by this one climactic episode. Still, it will now be part of her obituary -- and not just a fine print footnote.

Thomas' travails, which she brought on herself, bring to mind others who currently are staying too long at the party. But there's also a companion list of those who knew how and when to go.

Larry King, 76, has been with CNN for a quarter-century. For most of that time he reigned as the network's signature personality and a kingmaker of sorts during presidential elections. But his ratings have sagged to all-time lows in recent years while his very public divorce adventures continue. CNN lately has put King in the presence of Lady Gaga and the American Idol finalists in hopes of somehow both bolstering his ratings and lowering the age of his viewers. It doesn't work, and it's embarrassing. He needs to bow out gracefully -- and soon.

Andy Rooney seemingly has been a 60 Minutes commentator since the invention of the wheel. But at age 91, his musings all too often are the discomforting ramblings of an old man. Can he not let go of his weekly two minutes of fame? Would he cease to exist without it? Hanging on like this is unseemly. Rooney has made his mark and then some. He should give someone else a chance to end 60 Minutes on their terms. At this point it's the right thing to do.

Dan Rather, 78, is a tougher call. He stayed too long at the CBS News party, leaving the George W. Bush "Memogate" scandal as a lasting legacy. I initially thought he should have faded from view at that point. But Rather indeed has reinvented and redeemed himself to a degree with his weekly Dan Rather Reports series on Mark Cuban's HDNet. This is a single-topic program of substance in times when no broadcast network would entertain such a notion. So Rather is to be applauded for keeping the faith. But at the same time, shouldn't he strongly consider both smelling the roses and catching more fish at that favored stream near Bee, Texas? Or is he addicted to the grave with chasing yet another story and then shepherding it onto television? On the one hand it's admirable. On the other it's a little sad.

Others innately have known when to fold 'em.

Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show after a storied 30 years and resisted all efforts to have him return on a regular basis. He had been there, done that -- and was done with it. The crowd cried out for more, but Johnny didn't want to linger after losing a few miles off his fastball.

Charles Gibson left ABC News cold turkey last December when he easily could have stayed on indefinitely as anchor of the network's flagship World News. He's pretty much dropped out of sight, and seems to like it that way. Gibson clearly has a life and other interests beyond television. Imagine that.

Tom Brokaw quit anchoring NBC's Nightly News when he was still No. 1 in the ratings. He continues to pop up regularly on MSNBC's Morning Joe and annually churns out a documentary or two. But he clearly enjoys his free time, and now has plenty of it.

All of us, of course, can take a lesson from the recently departed John Wooden, who resigned as UCLA's basketball coach at age 64 in 1975 after winning his 10th NCAA championship. He devoted the rest of his life to being a loving husband, mentor and all-around class act.

Maybe Penn State's Joe Paterno, 83, would be wise to take a deep breath and finally let go. No one wants to see him end up like Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, who was fired in 1978 after hitting an opposing player at the Gator Bowl. He was a relatively young 65 at the time. Yet he had still grown old enough to do something stupid, for which he is ever remembered.

Truth in packaging. I'm a relatively able-bodied 62, and have been writing about local and national television for 30 years in D-FW alone. Over the years, I've gone beyond the northern border of every network audience demographic known to humankind. And yet I feel as though some of my best writing is still ahead of me.

Never fear, though. Television criticism increasingly is a younger person's game. And my disinclination to stay too long at the party will bring an end to unclebarky.com after three or four more years. By then it'll be time to walk away and try not to miss it too much. In other words, I'll do my very best to get a life.