The Boston Phoenix
February 4 - 11, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

Immaterial girl

Deconstructing the mean-spirited nihilism of Maureen Dowd

Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy

Maureen Dowd isn't the worst newspaper columnist in the country. She's not even the worst columnist on the New York Times's op-ed page. That distinction belongs to Abe Rosenthal, the retired executive editor turned ranting, purple-faced pundit. But Rosenthal isn't the toast of the commentariat; Dowd is. Her superficial, lightly reported, mean-spirited, and utterly mainstream "Liberties" column has become one of the few must-reads in the national press. Her personal life is the source of endless fascination and speculation. (She's currently rumored to be involved with the actor Michael Douglas.) Her appearances on Imus in the Morning are as rare, and as eagerly anticipated, as audiences with the pope.

Call her our most celebrated bad columnist.

Dowd's awfulness is more complex, and more frustrating, than mere hackery, for it is a natural outgrowth of her immense talents -- her sharp eye, her sure command of the language, her knack for the illuminating pop-culture or literary reference. As a White House correspondent, she helped revolutionize political reporting with her nasty wit and novelistic detail. Her best-known lead, on a 1994 homecoming by one of Oxford University's most famous alumni: "President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to a university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree."

Dowd's edgy journalism has always been controversial, and many of her critics were relieved when she moved to the op-ed page, in 1995, where her opinions would be clearly labeled as such. (Dowd replaced Anna Quindlen, a feminist trailblazer who left the Times to write novels.) Trouble is, relieving Dowd of the burden of actually having to cover stories served only to reinforce her most solipsistic tendencies. On the surface, her columns appear to be about presidential sex, Hollywood, even the Irish peace process. In truth, her work is nearly always about herself.

It is difficult to imagine a development more felicitous to Dowd (and, to be fair, to every pundit and professional blabber in the country) than the emergence of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998. You could almost hear Dowd sucking wind during the weeks before the scandal broke: the halfhearted attempt to make fun of that briefly famous photo of the thunder-thighed First Couple dancing on the beach; a rumination on Woody Allen's morality ("Everything that follows is perfectly obvious, but I can't stop thinking it"); and a takedown of "spoiled rich brat" Bill Gates that somehow managed to skip in its entirety the Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft.

By contrast, the Lewinsky affair, with its salacious combination of sex, sin, and celebrity, played to Dowd's real interests and supplied her with fodder for many, many, many columns. Always vicious to the Clintons, her commentary crashed over the edge, and she developed a reputation as one of the media's leading Clinton-bashers. She wrote an imaginary letter to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which gave her a chance to contrast the public's hypocritical outrage over Thomas's sexual harassment of Anita Hill with its blasé dismissal of Clinton's sexual exploitation of a young intern. (Never mind that Thomas was confirmed and Clinton was impeached.) She wrote a hilarious piece imagining the advice political consultants would give to Bill and Hillary on how to behave toward each other on Valentine's Day. And she joined the chorus in writing unctuously condescending tributes to White House secretary Betty Currie ("a modest, moral, religious woman who is not partisan and who is not out for herself") -- who, of course, was later revealed to be a virtual procurer, even to the point of sneaking Lewinsky in under the nose of presidential sex cop Evelyn Lieberman.

The funny thing about this is that Dowd -- who, in reality, stands for nothing beyond that day's column -- became known as a partisan, and started taking flak from the Clintons' defenders.

Historian and author Garry Wills, writing in the New York Post (of all places), asserted several weeks into the scandal, "Any journalist must be super strenuous to take the vileness award away from Maureen Dowd." (Wills may have ingested a bad mushroom: he somehow managed to transform Dowd's sentence "The revolution always eats its own" into a "slimy sexual innuendo." Dowd, you see, had also referred to a bizarre Dick Morris comment about Hillary's alleged lesbianism, and -- well, never mind.)

National Journal media critic William Powers identified Dowd as one of a handful of Irish-Catholic pundits who were outraged by Clinton's bad behavior because of their religious backgrounds. Others in the group, Powers reported, were National Journal editor and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly; San Francisco Examiner columnist and CNBC screaming head Chris Matthews; Post columnist Mary McGrory; NPR and ABC political analyst Cokie Roberts; and NBC's Tim Russert. Eric Alterman, who writes about the media for the left-liberal Nation, picked up on Powers's theory and called it a Catholic-inspired "punditocracy putsch."

The problem with this thesis, though, is that it assumes Dowd actually cares about Clinton's morals. To offer a telling contrast, Kelly burns with passion when he writes about Clinton; indeed, he was removed from his last job, as editor of the New Republic, for his anti-Clinton screeds. Dowd, on the other hand, blows with the breeze -- doing a 180, for instance, when the Starr report came out last September, writing a memorably dismissive column in which she pictured Ken Starr obsessing over Lewinsky's thong and Clinton's cigar. Indeed, for all her supposed daring, her envelope-pushing on the Times' august opinion pages, her opinion invariably reflects the conventional wisdom of the moment. When the pack was on the verge of hounding Clinton out of office, she was baying the loudest; when it turned on Starr, so did she. Her position, if it can even be called that, invariably reflects that of editorial-page editor Howell Raines (with whom she was once rumored to be romantically linked), with attitude substituting for argumentation.

Certainly no one would quarrel with Dowd's ability to turn a felicitously derisive phrase. On Jesse Jackson: "The ambulance-chaser of American politics." On sensitive men: "Any minute I'm afraid they might start asking me for Midol." On Leonardo DiCaprio: "He's bigger than Barbie -- and prettier." On writer and media critic James Fallows: "The Rector of American Journalism." On Ally McBeal and Newt Gingrich (together at last): "Two famously nutty, adolescent, undisciplined, self-absorbed figures with eating problems, a habit of driving feminists crazy and a talent for tantrums."

But what does it all mean? In the February 1 issue of New York magazine, Michael Wolff wrote approvingly that "Dowd has risen above most of the other caustic voices in the impeachment cacophony because where others clearly have a political agenda, Dowd's views . . . seem born of a purer rage." Rage? Dowd's columns aren't about anger. They're about nihilism. As social critic Todd Gitlin wrote in an awkwardly unquotable piece for the New York Observer last September, Dowd's columns about Clinton's sex life come at the expense of any substantive issue -- be it health care, campaign-finance reform, the environment, or the United Nations. (Back when Dowd was covering the Bush White House, administration officials reportedly joked over who knew less about foreign policy -- Dowd or then-presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.)

The most perceptive criticism of Dowd's work is a six-year-old piece in the Washington Monthly by Katherine Boo, who's now a reporter for the Washington Post. Boo lamented not just Dowd's own lack of focus on issues, but also her influence on her less-talented peers. Calling the phenomenon "Creeping Dowdism," Boo wrote that "what's unsettling is the dark vision of the pointlessness of politics that Dowd and her followers deliver, a vision that an onslaught of bright images can't obscure."

Of course, Dowd has an obligation not to be boring. But it's possible to deliver substance without somnolence. Her Times op-ed colleagues Frank Rich, Tom Friedman, and Bob Herbert write with passion and insight; Herbert's columns on Lacresha Murray, an 11-year-old Texas girl who may have been wrongly convicted of murdering a toddler, have been Pulitzer caliber. Nor is there any shortage of first-rate women columnists. To name just one example: Barbara Ehrenreich, recently dropped by Time magazine, a liberal feminist who has nevertheless been as tough on the president's predatory sexuality as anyone on the right.

The most curious column Dowd wrote last year may also be the most telling. Dowd had cranked out several foul columns about Lewinsky, a young woman she didn't know. An especially repugnant (if hilarious) example came on May 31, when she wrote a piece purporting to be a handwriting sample Lewinsky had given the FBI. ("Ken Starr, if you are reading this, you are an extremely twisted individual who needs help. You can't possibly understand what Bill and I had together. It was so poetic!!! Bill + Monica.")

Not long thereafter, Dowd reported that she actually ran into Lewinsky, at the Bombay Club in Washington. Dowd wrote in her June 17 column: " 'Do you mind if I ask you something?' she [Lewinsky] said, poised and icy. 'Why do you write such scathing articles about me?' " According to Dowd, she was frozen, unable to respond: " 'I don't know,' I shrugged, lamely. She sashayed away, looking triumphant."

In other words, when a character she had toyed with for months turned out to be a real person, Dowd freaked. It's this utter disengagement, this detachment from the people she writes about, that ultimately defines Maureen Dowd's work: the good, the bad, and, most of all, the ugly. It's easy for her to hide behind her assiduously cultivated privacy, to bat ideas around with a few people she's close to (her inner circle reportedly includes her mother and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier). It's quite another thing to have to confront one of the objects of her snide putdowns.

Maybe what Dowd really needs is to get out more.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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