Two of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes were awarded for wit: one for Margaret Edson’s play of that name, about a scholar of 17th-century English poetry facing ovarian cancer, and another for the quality most evident in the writing of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Newspaper commentary, a dying art (see Jacob Weisberg’s recent encomium on its last great), is nowadays dominated by sententiousness, not satire. On the flat, windy landscape of the nation’s opinion pages, Dowd stands out for her sharp one-liners and her brisk aperçus. Woody Allen’s recent movies are versions of The Catcher in the Rye Bread. Al Gore (“Prince Albert”) “grew up as the capital’s version of Eloise at the Plaza.” The Lewinsky matter is “the first scandal with product placement.” “C-SPAN has turned politics into a TV series that nobody has the power to pull.” And let’s not omit Dowd’s incisive summary of the moral and constitutional crux of the Clinton sex scandal, almost worthy of Oscar Wilde: “These are not grounds for impeachment; these are grounds for divorce.”
Like anyone who tries to be funny, Dowd sometimes strains for effect and falls flat: She posed a choice between New York’s Rudolph Giuliani and Washington’s Marion Barry as one between “the mayor who cracks down on crime and the mayor whose crime was crack.” At other times, her glibness gets in the way of her insight: “Historians will long ponder how Mrs. Clinton came in as Eleanor Roosevelt and left as Madonna.” They will? Like anyone who must produce 700 words of headline-based observation twice every week, she appears on occasion to phone in her copy, as when she imagined a series of U.S. history documentaries directed by Oliver Stone. (“Abigail Adams is really Lucianne Goldberg.”) And she could set a welcome example for pundits everywhere if she took a solemn, public oath never to write another word about Ally McBeal. Still, occasional lapses aside, no other regular newspaper columnist matches her gimlet eye, her sense of phrase, or her unpredictability.
One measure of Dowd’s importance is that even people who profess to despise her seem to read her religiously–and to recycle her jokes at parties. Another is that she is subject to frequent, sometimes scathing, criticism in publications of every ideological stripe and market niche. Her unalloyed contempt for the Clintons managed to infuriate even as lukewarm a Clintonite as Garry Wills, who wrote, more than a year before the Pulitzer, that “any journalist must be super strenuous to take the vileness award from Maureen Dowd.” But Dowd’s disgust with the president’s persecutors and her merciless flaying of Ken Starr, including the famous Sept. 23 column of last year that began, “He couldn’t stop thinking about the thong underwear,” earned her some brickbats from the anti-Clinton right. The National Review called her “a writer of relentless orthodoxy,” by which of course it meant liberal orthodoxy.
But Dowd’s politics are nearly impossible to glean from her columns. Most of her colleagues on the Times op-ed page represent an identifiable and more or less consistent position: Thomas L. Friedman is the voice of liberal internationalism, Russell Baker was the voice of New Deal liberalism, Bob Herbert is the voice of liberal populism, William Safire is the voice of libertarian conservatism, and A. M. Rosenthal is the voice of sheer ranting lunacy. Dowd, in contrast, plays her ideological cards close to the vest. Her published views on matters of policy would scarcely fill a chapbook: She favors gun control, hates the tobacco industry, and welcomes the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland.
These positions are hardly evidence, in the Clinton era, of a heterodox temperament. They are as likely, these days, to be held by a Republican as by a Democrat. But it’s not Dowd’s views that irritate her critics so much as her style and her attitude. The case against Dowd, taken up lately by Michael Wolff in New York magazine (“she is derisive, mocking, hyperbolic, bitchy”) and by Dan Kennedy in the Boston Phoenix (“Call her our most celebrated bad columnist”) was most cogently laid out in a 1992 piece by Katherine Boo in the Washington Monthly. At the time, Dowd was still a reporter, following the presidential campaign after having covered the Bush and Reagan White Houses. (She was anointed a columnist in 1995, replacing Anna Quindlen in what National Review calls the Times’ “liberal Irish woman’s seat.”) Boo’s brief boils down to two main charges: that Dowd’s breezy, sardonic style has inspired a flood of stilted, self-conscious imitators; and that “the Dowd crowd” contributed to the erosion of political discourse by placing style and personality above seriousness and substance.
The first charge is easily dismissed. A writer with a strong and original voice will always influence lesser talents: Imitation is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius. You might as well blame the Beatles for the Monkees or Matt Groening for The Family Guy. But the second accusation is both more interesting and more complicated, especially because the trivialization of politics has long been one of Dowd’s obsessions. In Clinton’s Washington, according to Dowd, the celebrity culture and the political culture have become indistinguishable.
But the merger of politics and celebrity was one Dowd herself helped broker. Or, to switch metaphors, she is simultaneously a brilliant diagnostician of the political disease of our time and a symptom of it. It was Dowd, after all, who wrote the story of Frank Sinatra’s alleged affair with Nancy Reagan, as chronicled in Kitty Kelley’s biography of Nancy, on the front page of the New York Times. (Dowd protests that the piece was an assignment and, quite rightly, that editors, not reporters, decide what goes on Page One.)
And it’s Dowd who last year wrote a hilarious column called “Of Frogs and Newts,” which linked the doomed speaker with, yes, Ally McBeal. And Dowd who speculates about what kind of a president Tom Hanks would make, and who calls Al Gore “the Saving Private Ryan of presidential candidates”–meaning that the aura of inevitability that surrounds him now may turn out to be a curse in 2000. (Does this make Bill Bradley Shakespeare in Love?)
The politics of celebrity is also a politics of personality–of confession and “healing,” of narcissism disguised as empathy. Unlike Clinton’s (but kind of like Gore’s), Dowd’s moments of self-revelation are carefully rationed and, therefore, unusually effective. She recently wrote a powerful piece about the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City that began with an account of her father, a D.C. policeman, killing a suspect in self-defense. Last year, in a defense of the concept of sexual harassment, she recalled her own humiliation, years before, by a powerful editor she had gone to see about a job. And in a remarkable (and notorious) column from June of 1998, she detailed her encounter, at a popular D.C. Indian restaurant, with Monica Lewinsky herself, whom Dowd had mercilessly cast as a fat, insecure, bubble-headed Valley girl. (“You can take the girl out of Beverly Hills, but you can’t take Beverly Hills out of the girl.”) “Do you mind if I ask you something?” Lewinsky said to Dowd, “Why do you write such scathing articles about me?”
The fact that Dowd was struck dumb by this question has been used against her. The Phoenix’s Kennedy sees it as proof of her “utter disengagement” and her “detachment from the people she writes about.” But we wouldn’t know about Dowd’s failure to muster a response, or about Lewinsky’s poise and forthrightness, unless Dowd herself had chosen to tell us. And while perhaps an explicit admission that she’d been unfair to Lewinsky would have been sporting, the column as written is at once more artful and more honest.
Last October, in a column that featured selections from some of the predictably misogynist hate mail she has received from both liberals and conservatives, Dowd permitted herself to fantasize about a parallel universe in which she could be “a champagne farmer in France in love with a neighboring cognac farmer. Or an archaeologist in the Yucatan who flies her own plane and owns a supper club called The Fuzzy Slipper.” “Anything,” she concluded “as long as I am not a Washington journalist in the era of Clinton and Gingrich and Starr, covering this horrible grudge match between the right and the left that has been building since Watergate.”
Don’t believe a word of it. Dowd is the only writer on her paper’s op-ed page fully in tune with the political and cultural moment. Other pundits beam their opinions at us as through a time warp, from the hazy days of past administrations. George F. Will is stuck in Reagan’s first term (though he tries to convince us that he’s stuck in the Madison administration). Safire’s a Nixon man to the end, and Frank Rich recalls the glorious presidency of Eugene McCarthy. But Dowd is, mutatis mutandis, the H.L. Mencken of the Clinton era–the president’s symbiotic scourge. He may have the numbers of a lot of women, but Dowd alone has his.
Like the rest of his most loyal supporters and his most intractable enemies (and she has been, uniquely, both), Dowd is part of the baby boom generation. “Historians will record,” she has written, elaborating on something Leon Weiseltier once wrote about Clinton, “that our generation’s contribution was to be the generation that worried about its contribution.” Another feature of this generation’s passage through American culture–shared by liberals and conservatives, cynics and true believers, Clinton, Gingrich, Steven Spielberg, and Dowd herself–is a misty sense of some better, earlier time before they came along and screwed everything up.
The body of Dowd’s work as a columnist, and in particular the Flytrap pieces that won her the Pulitzer, is one of the most brilliant examples yet of boomer self-castigation. The Clinton presidency is, of course, another example. And one worries a bit about what Dowd will do when it ends. She has been practicing for this inevitable terrible event lately, scoring Elizabeth Dole as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, admitting to a fondness for John McCain, and having great fun at the expense of Al Gore and George W. Bush, the two scions likely to fight it out in 2000. But while she will no doubt be splendid on their millennial campaign, it’s hard to see how her intemperate wit will find adequate targets in either a Gore Jr. or a W. Bush administration.
Is it too selfish of us to ask for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment–for four more years of Clinton and another $40 million for Ken Starr?