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14 May 1999

The Howler profile (part III): No wonder

Synopsis: A piece in Brill’s Content helped explain the caliber of Dowd’s recent gunplay.

In Search of Maureen Dowd
Gay Jervey, Brill’s Content, 6/99

Those analysts! You could probably see, in yesterday’s HOWLER, that they almost won us with their critique of Dowd, though we have stoutly defended the talented tyro right in these very pages. Last spring, for example, we bravely spoke up when This Week’s gang swiped four of Dowd’s jokes; indeed, they even recited the stolen sallies in perfect order from Dowd’s Sunday column. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/98, for our report on the pilfering pundits.

But it was hard to believe that Dowd’s work on guns was the best that the press corps can manage (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/13/99). Her three columns were filled with pointless asides, and with unprovable recitations on motive. The work was so stuffed with filler--and with self-contradiction--that Dowd never got around to her “case” at all. Dowd wants to ban handguns, and let Hollywood go, but she never explained why she thought that was right. Does it matter if children shoot up their schools? Judging from these lazy columns, Dowd hasn’t given it a whole lot of thought. Seemingly, she spends more time checking bald spots on pols than she does limning things that might matter.

So how could it be that the witty scribe is considered D.C.’s Best in Show? The analysts gave us Gay Jervey’s new piece, and we greedily fell on its contents. Jervey detailed D.C.’s view of Dowd, and we may have seen why Dowd doesn’t push herself harder. It seemed to us, as we read Jervey’s piece, that some pandering to Dowd may be going on.

For example, Jervey describes a 1993 incident in which Dowd was rude to poor Dominick Dunne. “I was hurt, very hurt,” Dunne tells the scribe. “It was really upsetting. She was so hostile.”

We all can be rude every now and again, but we were struck by this tale’s happy ending. During last year’s impeachment, says Dunne, something amazing occurred:

JERVEY (quoting Dunne): “While I was down there [in Washington], I went to a big book party and Maureen was there. Suddenly she came up to me and did this simply wonderful thing. She said, ‘I am sorry for what I said to you back then. I am sorry.’ I was knocked out, stunned. I think it takes a lot of stuff to apologize like that. So I said, ‘Maureen, over, out, done!’ The person I was with said, ‘Oh my God. I just witnessed the most incredible, fascinating thing.’ ”

But of course, the stunning thing Dunne’s friend witnessed wasn’t “incredible” at all; people apologize to each other all the time. It’s been forty years since Brenda Lee sang “I’m Sorry,” and the practice was in place before that. What happened next was trivial too. But Dunne thought the Red Sea had parted:

JERVEY (quoting Dunne): “And the very next day, as I was leaving the impeachment hearings, it was pouring down rain, and a cab pulled up with Maureen, Jill Abramson (of the New York Times), and Al Hunt (of the Wall Street Journal), and they rescued me from the rain. The very next day.”

When people get shivers from miracles like that, it’s no wonder they’ll praise lousy writing. And pandering pops up in other Jervey tales, in which major domos laud Maureen Dowd’s writing. Even Jervey joins in at one point, praising Dowd’s “searing snapshots” of Clinton:

JERVEY: [S]he has routinely been right on. Consider the following excerpt from November 14, 1996: “We live in a society where loyalty to self yields to no other loyalty. In this respect, Bill Clinton is the perfect hologram for his age...Despite the hugging and misting and sharing, the Great Empath has always been willing to sacrifice friends and advisers at a brisk pace, with a chilling lack of sentimentality.”

But this stock critique has been heard a thousand times, recycled without end by the press corps. Indeed, this view has been voiced so many times, it could be typed up by kids in their sleep. But to Jervey, Dowd is simply a whiz. Her research techniques are fantastic:

JERVEY: Among Washington columnists, there is no keener observer of Bill Clinton than Maureen Dowd...[S]he seems obsessed with his personality, always looking for the key to his character--or rather, his utter lack thereof. In the summer of 1997, for example, when President Clinton installed a hot tub at the White House, Dowd traveled to Santa Monica to visit the showroom of the manufacturer who had made the President’s new toy. She wanted to test the waters...

Pointless field trips never end with this person! Jervey describes Dowd and five famous friends lounging about in the bubbling tub--after telling Brill readers that the trip showcased Dowd in her role as our “keenest observer.”

Bill Kovach’s account of Dowd’s strength as a writer may shed further light on the syndrome. Kovach, once editor to Dowd at the Times, recalled the 1984 Dem Convention:

JERVEY: Even as a young reporter Dowd had an eye for telling detail and nuance...“We were on deadline,” Kovach explains. “Mondale and Ferraro had just been nominated...As the candidates stood on the platform, Maureen jumped up and grabbed me and said, ‘Look! Look! There is the story. Mondale doesn’t know whether to hug his wife or Ferraro. He doesn’t know what to do.’ She saw that signaled a new era, with women playing a whole new role in politics and men not quite knowing what to do.” That keen observation...crystallized for Kovach just how clairvoyant a reporter she was.

Clairvoyant! Forgive us for doubting that Mondale’s discomfort somehow rang in a giant new era. Dowd’s harping on it, though, may have signaled such an epoch, in which pundits like Dowd replace matters of substance with a personality-based worship of trivia (and with the love of other people’s discomfort). Like several in the gloomy Goth press, Dowd seems most happy when others are not. Dowd persists in a pouting, childish view that Daddy is wrong about everything. Everyone does everything wrong all the time. Read back through Dowd’s 5/9 column on guns, for example, in which Daddy Clinton unfairly singles Hollywood out, and at the same time is dumbly even-handed.

We had to admit it, just to ourselves, when the analysts had gone to their chambers for study. Dowd’s columns on guns were just plain bad--baldly lacking in effort and insight. In three columns, she said nothing of substance--nothing at all--about any significant post-Littleton subject. She did notice the way Liddy Dole eats a sundae, and we went on a meaningless trip to a mall. And she rattled off problems with GOP hopefuls. Gary Bauer? He looks like a sparrow.

Today, such fandangos show “nuance and insight.” But our analysts tell us it’s Dowd shooting blanks. We suspect that they may be clairvoyant.

Visit our incomparable archives: Imagining motives (from a thousand miles away), ignoring hard facts (right there in the Times), Dowd invented the Love Story flap. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/99.