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11 May 1999

The Howler profile (part I): Down on Dowd

Synopsis: Our overwrought analysts critique Maureen Dowd. We begin to consider their outlook.

President Frat Boy?
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/7/99

In the D.C. Matrix
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/28/99


When last we checked with Maureen Dowd, she had dug her way through large piles of old newspapers, and had found a quote in which George Dub, age 19, was sounding off on fraternity hoo-hah (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/99, postscript). Luckily, a flap had come up about “frat-branding” practices while the Texas governor was a student at Yale, and Dowd, ever sensitive to nuance and character, was phoning in from the dim, distant past:

DOWD (4/7): Steve Weisman, a Yale student then stringing for The New York Times (who is now a member of The Times’ editorial board) reported on a Yale Daily News article accusing campus fraternities of carrying on “sadistic and obscene” initiation procedures.

And luckily, it had gotten even better. Weisman had gone on to describe hot branding irons, and half-inch wide scabs in the shape of Greek letters; and luckily, young Bush, then a big-shot frat leader, had spoken out on the troubling procedures. According to Bush, the branding was done with a hot coat hanger, which wasn’t really all that bad, since in the Texas colleges of the day, they used cattle prods on their young pledges.

Dowd went on to flack cocaine, and marijuana, and unproven bar tales, in another example of her commitment to character.

Well, you can imagine the howl that went up from the analysts when the Dowd retrospective was published. They’ve long complained about the Times tyro, saying she lives to diminish the discourse. They’ve said that, if Dowd ever gets things her way, our great public discourse will go right in the dumpster. We’ll spend the next year discussing dances on bars, and debating the truth of Love Story.

Those analysts! They’re young, and foolish, and to them life is new, and they dream of a great public discourse. And we’ve often scolded them for their jibes, when they call Dowd their own “Queen of Heathers.” But in the aftermath of the Littleton killings, we began to find ourselves down on Dowd too. It seemed to us, in tragedy, that Dowd knew what to do. It seemed to us that Dowd ran straight to gossip:

DOWD (4/28): Right before the Littleton shootings, Al Gore was telling everyone that he and Tipper just loved “The Matrix.”

Was there some imaginable reason why they shouldn’t have done so? Dowd seemed to think that there was:

DOWD: The Gores’ taste in movies, while hip, is a telling reminder of the difficulties and contradictions that can trip up politicians when they start lecturing about changing the culture. Their appreciation of “The Matrix” directly collides with the White House effort this week to denounce the movie and video-game “culture of violence”...

Clearly, Dowd doesn’t like getting “lectured.” But did the Gores’ taste in movies contradict White House efforts? Dowd quoted Tipper Gore on the subject. Yep. Those adults were again being hypocrites:

DOWD: “Listen and ask your child, ‘What movie do you like and why? If you like a very violent movie and if you’ve seen it repeatedly, does that mean that it’s having undue influence on you?’ ” Mrs. Gore asked on “Meet the Press”... “The Matrix,” which has attracted an obsessively devoted audience of young computer-savvy males, would seem to be the sort of movie Mrs. Gore was describing.

And it may well be that, if a child were to go see The Matrix “repeatedly,” Mrs. Gore might suggest that we ask the child why. But her husband has recently turned 51, and is statistically unlikely to shoot up any high schools; only Dowd and her circle of gossips would think Mrs. Gore had contradicted herself. And our faith in Dowd wasn’t helped at all when she soon said the Gores were too soft on film moguls. Yep--five paragraphs after scoring the Gores for their “lectures,” Dowd said the Gores were too soft:

DOWD: Hillary and Bill and Tipper and Al have the gun-control message right, but they are not the most consistent messengers to preach about the toxic forces in American culture. Their concern is too often tailored not to offend their donors and pollsters.

Hmmm. It was much like the analysts had said all along. Within a matter of a few hundred words, the Gores were both 1) “lecturing us about changing the movie culture” and 2) tailoring their concern not to offend mogul buddies. Unable to settle for one ugly flaw, Dowd gave the Gores contradictory flaws, which they were somehow acting out at the same time.

But that’s what the analysts had always said. The analysts had said that, with Maureen Dowd, everyone turns out to be morally wrong--except for Dowd herself. And sure enough, Dowd now said the Gores “should not be entertained and financed by the same culture that [they] demonize and trash.” But where had she shown us the Gores doing that? She had shown us an adult--imaginably a caring adult--saying children shouldn’t watch violent movies obsessively. Why would that mean that stable adults should see Darby O’Gill, and nothing else?

And so we decided to take up the challenge the analysts had laid down in the past. We’d take a look at Dowd’s winning column, over a several week period. It seemed that Dowd was gearing up to deliver a message about the gun culture. We’d ask one question, from the popular culture. “Where,” we’d ask Dowd, “is the beef?”


Tomorrow: Wherever the beef was, it couldn’t be found when Dowd sketched her views about guns.