American Enterprise Online | 2.21.06
By Alan W. Dowd

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (no relation) seems omnipresent these days. She has been hawking her new book Are Men Necessary? early in the morning on the “Today” show, late at night on “Charlie Rose,” and in between on Tim Russert’s CNBC program. Ms. Dowd has even made her way over to the usually staid C-SPAN, where I was able to catch her chatting with Brian Lamb last month.

Television has an unforgiving and unfair way of magnifying a person’s quirks, to be sure. So it’s no surprise that the hour-long interview on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” played like a super-sized Maureen Dowd column—chatty and cutesy, silly and sarcastic, sometimes witty, sometimes whiny, but mostly fluffy and flirty. “In a Maureen Dowd column,” as Catherine Seipp wrote in The Washingtonian, “meaning has become unnecessary.” Ms. Dowd is, after all, the woman who quoted Don McLean’s “American Pie” to make a point—some point—after Hurricane Katrina.

But the C-SPAN cameras captured more than her quirks. They also captured some things that the written word cannot. (Television has an unforgiving way of doing that as well.) For example, Ms. Dowd is self-critical about the strangest, most trivial things. When Mr. Lamb pulled out a photo taken during a 1991 interview she did with Barbara Bush, Ms. Dowd fretted over her own hairdo. “That’s ‘91?” she gasped. “That’s kind of ‘80s hair.” Later, she mocked the “Annie Hall outfit” she was wearing in a picture with President and Mrs. Clinton.

Of course, Ms. Dowd saves her sharpest skewers for President George W. Bush and his administration. She has made a living (quite literally) at implying that Bush is the puppet of smarter men, the simple and simplistic stooge. Yet the observations she offered on C-SPAN reveal that she herself holds some rather simplistic views.

For instance, she believes that the younger Bush has some type of nanny complex that forces him to surround himself with “yes-women.” She tosses Karen Hughes, Condoleezza Rice and Harriet Miers into this group of “nannies.” Bush is “insulated and infantilized by all these yes-men and yes-women and nannies around him,” as Ms. Dowd elaborated in an Austin Chronicle interview. In Ms. Dowd’s view, Bush “confuses their fawning with qualifications.” Whether or not Ms. Dowd’s premise is sound, it’s surprising to learn that despite all her savvy street smarts and cosmopolitan cynicism, she was unaware that powerful people are always surrounded by fawners and yes-men.

Gazing through her Rorschach world, Ms. Dowd sees the entire Bush presidency as “an Oedipal loop-to-loop.” She told Mr. Lamb and the rest of us sitting in at America’s town hall that first among the “nutty and naïve reasons” Bush the younger wanted to go to war in Iraq was to “one-up” Bush the elder. Never mind how drastically September 11 had altered the perspective of the White House. Never mind that failure to prevent September 11 made preventive war in Iraq virtually inevitable, just as Munich made the showdowns with Moscow over Berlin and Korea and Cuba inevitable.

Ms. Dowd also offered some psycho-analysis on Donald Rumsfeld, who, in her opinion, wanted a war in Iraq to “show-off” his vision of military transformation. Never mind that Afghanistan had already done that. Never mind that Rumsfeld was on record calling for Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 1998, at a time when few thought George W. Bush could win the presidency and fewer still thought Don Rumsfeld would be his secretary of defense.

In Ms. Dowd’s view, Senators Kerry and Clinton supported the war in Iraq because they “couldn’t afford not to be seen as manly.” Of course, not even Sen. Kerry’s strongest critics called into question his manliness. As for Sen. Clinton, her support for the war had more to do with Manhattan than manliness. After all, she represents New York, a city that might not be maimed today had America waged a preventive war against Osama bin Laden and his patron states.

Finally, when asked what young women who aspire to careers in print journalism should do to prepare themselves, Ms. Dowd gave good advice: “Read a lot of history…a lot of reporters are a-historical.” Yet when she was asked why there wasn’t more reporting on the Korean War, she had no answer. Noting that a million people died in the war, Mr. Lamb asked if she had ever written or thought about the conflict. The usually wordy Dowd responded with a telling, one-syllable answer:  “No.” Pushing a little further, Mr. Lamb followed up, “It never came across your radar screen?” Again, the same one-word answer: “No.”

That’s intriguing to me (and apparently to Mr. Lamb). After all, Korea is a place where Americans could at any moment of any day be drawn back into war. It’s a place where tens of thousands of Americans died in Ms. Dowd’s lifetime. It’s a place where the Cold War—a fairly important chunk of history—played out in microcosm. 

To be fair, history is much bigger than the Korean War. Yet one would think a columnist for America’s newspaper of record would have some opinions about the peninsula.  Even so, perhaps Ms. Dowd’s disinterest in Korea is to be expected. After all, her writing is not concerned with history so much as the here-and-now; it’s always of the moment—public policy through the prism of “Sex and the City,” national security as society-column gossip, politics as pop-culture.

Indeed, when her reference point is not pop-psychology, she usually turns to movies: When the invasion of Iraq came up, she began her answer with “Ever since Lawrence of Arabia…” On Bush’s war policy, “It’s the Star Wars story…” On a Pentagon investigation, “It’s like the scene in Blazing Saddles…” On Bush’s supposed need for affirmation, “Like in The Wizard of Oz…”

There’s nothing wrong with this style—after all, it’s hard to argue with a Pulitzer Prize and a legion of loyal fans. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with holding simple views. In fact, sometimes the simplest explanation is the only one that makes sense. But it seems disingenuous to lampoon others for being simplistic if you’re guilty of the very same thing.