© Ellie Foreman-Peck
"Those who lack delicacy," wrote William Hazlitt, "hold us in their power." It would take a fabulist of Borgesian ingenuity to demonstrate that Hazlitt actually had the New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd in mind. Yet it is hard for a contemporary reader to ponder Hazlitt's words and the name "Maureen Dowd" in conjunction without being struck by the truth of the dictum.
Miss Dowd (she has never married, though she is said to have dated the actor Michael Douglas and the writer Aaron Sorkin) is one of those columnists who confuse being obnoxious with being incisive. It's a confusion that has served her well. She has been loaded with just about every prize and honour a journalist can win. She was named "woman of the year" by Glamour in 1996. In 1999, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the Monica Lewinski scandal. Her celebrity is transatlantic. In 2007, the Telegraph reported that she ranked number 37 on its list of the "most influential liberals". Oxford students even formulated the "Five Immutable Laws of Dowd". (Law the first: "The People magazine principle: All political phenomena can be reduced to caricatures of the personalities involved.")
Dowd's origins are humble. She comes from a working-class Irish-Catholic family. Her father was a police inspector. She went to work at the Washington Star in 1974 shortly after she graduated from The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. When the paper closed in the early 1980s, she went briefly to Time, which was not yet on life-support. In 1983, she made the move to the New York Times, first as a metropolitan editor, and then, in 1995, as Anna Quindlen's successor as an op-ed columnist.
Many knowledgeable observers believed that Quindlen set a ne plus ultra beneath which it was impossible for a columnist to descend in emetic repulsiveness. Maureen Dowd quickly proved them wrong. It turned out there were many sub-basements of journalistic awfulness below the impressive floor occupied by Anna Quindlen.
But where Quindlen pioneered novel species of hyperventilating political sentimentality, Dowd specialises in mean-girl, sorority cattiness. It's a familiar if unattractive trait among a certain class of pubescent female. What's unusual is to see it deployed on the comment pages of a major newspaper. Dowd has perfected the gambit. But what's funny in the pages of a St Trinian's story is simply appalling when presented as serious commentary.