Inside Spitball

Chatterbox has been waiting, patiently, for someone to point out that the Pulitzer Prize awarded recently to Maureen Dowd represents an embarrassment to the profession. (Click here for a largely favorable take on Dowd in this week’s Slate “Assessment.”) Dowd-bashing has been common in recent years, and Chatterbox pretty much subscribes to its basic tenets: Dowd’s column is lightweight and snide, a sad waste of a deft feature writer’s considerable talent. (Instead of winning a Pulitzer for her pensées, Chatterbox wishes Dowd had won one for her tart coverage of the Bush White House.) The enthusiasm for Dowd’s column among the cognoscenti in New York (most Washingtonians I know can’t stand the thing) suggests to Chatterbox that within the nation’s literary elite a flouncy indifference to public affairs, once merely acceptable, has lately become virtually mandatory.

Chatterbox’s problem with Dowd’s column isn’t its whimsy. It isn’t even that Dowd’s column is nothing but whimsy (though that does limit its scope). The problem is the weight Dowd attaches to her whimsy. The spitballs she tosses from the back of the classroom are meant to be taken as serious opinions. No doubt some of the column’s faux gravitas derives from its placement on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times , which arguably is not her fault. But some of it is clearly intentional, stemming from Dowd’s apparent conviction that the surface realities she traffics in are more important than whatever tedious substance might lie beneath.

Case in point: her latest column (click here to read it; you’ll have to register with the Times Web site first). Hillary Clinton is writing a book about entertaining at the White House. It’s the latest in a series of lame attempts to pass the first lady off as some sort of traditional wife–an old story at this point (remember when she touted her recipe for Toll House cookies back in 1992?) and, now that the Lewinsky scandal has made the Clintons’ marriage look more than ever like a chilly business deal, a pretty pathetic one. Chatterbox figures it’s worth a brief, rueful chuckle. Dowd thinks it’s a scandal. “She who went boldly where no President’s wife had gone before and hijacked vast precincts of social and legal policy–will produce a book on the joys of entertaining and decorating,” Dowd fulminates. Note the classic Dowdian have-it-both-ways formulation: Hillary was a power-hungry bitch to get involved in (“hijack”) executive policymaking; now she’s a discredit to feminism for writing about dinner parties. (Why can’t Dowd just call Hillary a hypocrite and leave it at that?) Note also the classic Dowdian snobbery: “The publishers are not at all troubled by the fact that the esthetic and cultural standards of the Clinton White House have been abysmally low. Kaki Hockersmith, the Little Rock decorator who redid the White House in High Hot Springs, will help with the book.” Merciful heavens! Daisy Mae is handing out fabric samples to the Junior League! Dowd herself grew up in a blue-collar family, as she points out from time to time in her column; but that doesn’t give her license to sneer at white trash.

Dowd’s Hillary column ultimately concludes that the problem with the First Lady’s “Potemkin hearth” is that, in trying to be “all things to all people,” she is merely “unsettling, and unentertaining.” Unentertaining? Is that really what this is all about? It’s Chatterbox’s view that, while politics can indeed present an amusing pageant from time to time, if you want entertainment you should go see The Matrix . But in Dowd’s universe, boring is the awfullest thing you can be. Chatterbox thinks Dowd should be more compassionate about that, because her own ditsy-bad-girl act is wearing thin.

–Timothy Noah