Overrated: Maureen Dowd

The New York Times columnist, despite her transatlantic celebrity, no longer knows how far to go in her puerile cattiness

Overrated US Politics
© 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.

Some people say that Dowd is an equal-opportunity scourge. She is just as likely to say that Al Gore is “so feminised and diversified and ecologically correct that he’s practically lactating” as she is to say that Paul Ryan is “just a fresh face on a Taliban creed”, the “creed” in question being an opposition to that form of state-sanctioned homicide we excuse with the term “abortion”.

Dowd makes a big deal about her Catholic heritage. But she hates the Church. She seemed to believe that Pope Benedict (the “über-conservative Pope”) was a cross between Genghis Khan and a Nazi functionary. She blithely compares the status of women in the Catholic Church to that of women in Saudi Arabia. “Negating women,” she writes, is “at the heart” of the Church’s “hideous indifference to the welfare of boys and girls in its priests’ care”.

But while Dowd’s sympathies are clearly leftist, her politics are more a matter of fashion than principle. Her first concern — it’s the first concern of the class smart-aleck — is to take your breath away. Hence her fondness for rude nicknames. Sarah Palin is the “Caribou Barbie”. Barack Obama is “Obambi”. Instead of analysing the policies or ideas of political actors, she indulges in jejune character assassination. She opened a column about George W. Bush: “The Boy Emperor picked up the morning paper and, stunned, dropped his Juicy Juice box with the little straw attached.” I suppose readers of the New York Times think it’s clever and daring to call the President of the United States “Boy Emperor” (she called him “boy” nine times in a 725-word piece) and equip him with a child’s accessory. 

Dowd’s celebrity depends on an effective deployment of insouciance, what Gertrude Stein described as knowing how far to go in going too far. There are signs that Dowd’s judgment in that area is slipping. She was widely and sharply criticised for a recent column about President Obama’s failure to achieve the gun control legislation he favoured. The President, she complained, “doesn’t know how to work the system”. “The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in The American President,” a film by her friend Aaron Sorkin. 

That proposal was treated with some of the contempt it deserved. It’s but a short step from contempt to indifference. I suspect that we’ll see Maureen Dowd lash out with ever more incontinent rhetoric as her audience dwindles away. As she once said of Hillary Clinton, “Fish rots from the head down.”