September 01, 2004,
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, probably the ditziest Pulitzer Prize winner ever, has just come out with her first book: Bushworld: Enter At Your Own Risk, a collection of her columns about the president. When I first heard about Bushworld, I remembered the time earlier this year when Dowd returned from several weeks' vacation with a column that swung from Bush to lesbians and back again and left many readers scratching their heads even more than usual.
Dowd hooked that return column which had something to do with the paradox of George W. Bush's popularity even as lesbians are no longer considered outre around the premiere of Showtime's new TV series The L Word. The connection was just too deliciously amusing for the wordplay-loving Dowd, because, you see, "L" is a letter, and "W" is a letter, and therefore, Dowd concluded: "It's hard to figure, but America seems ready to embrace W. and the L word at the same time."
Get it? Not everyone did, judging from the confused reaction I saw in online weblogs, where (I am sorry to say) she is regularly referred to as Moron Dud and Stupid Pan Dowdy. Apparently not everyone remembered, by the time Dowd had meandered down to her finish line, that the "L" in The L Word stands for lesbians. She'd explained it just a few graphs before, but there's something about a Dowd column that makes the mind wander. Attention, class!
But even those with a vested interest missed Dowd's point, if she did have one. As it happens, the day after Dowd's Bush/lesbians/whatever piece ran, Showtime presented its midseason programming to reporters in Hollywood. "You know something must be happening when Maureen Dowd mentions George W. Bush and 'The L Word' in the same sentence both favorably, I might add," a Showtime exec announced.
Of course, Dowd hadn't mentioned Bush favorably she never does but The L Word people hadn't understood that, and obviously it didn't matter. As the Showtime exec chattered happily on, I realized that this was something of a watershed Maureen Dowd moment. Now it was (sort of) official: No one reads Maureen Dowd anymore for analysis, or insight, or even simple sense. They just read her because she's there, in the New York Times, like the weather report.
You hear a lot of talk in election years about the polarized American public, but few politicians are as polarizing as Maureen Dowd. Esquire included her in its "Women We Love" feature in the early '90s, and she's still something of a sacred cow in Washington and at the New York Times. But to many outside her Inside-the-Beltway/media-glamour circuit, Dowd has become the Woman You Love to Hate.
Critics have called her style catty, or at least kittenish. But this isn't really apt anymore. Cats scratch, and Dowd no longer draws blood. An effective criticism of Bush and his policies has to involve more than just chirping "Rummy" and "Boy Emperor" or dreaming up whimsical dialogues. Dowd is now more pixyish than kittenish, which is part of what makes her so annoying. Who wants to deal with Tinkerbell flitting around when you're trying to read the op-ed pages?
Here's a line from a column she wrote about Bush becoming "chummy" with Russian president Vladimir Putin: "The Russian president said he was looking forward to riding horses with the American president. Mr. Bush had to explain he doesn't ride. He prefers to saddle up his jeep or his golf cart, Gator, around the ranch."
And this meant...what, exactly? Nothing. But in a Maureen Dowd column, meaning has become unnecessary. It was just another school-girl spitball lobbed at Bush: Screw you and the horse you didn't ride in on.
Dowd's enemies aren't all on the right, by the way. When she began her Times column in 1995, Susan Faludi took Dowd to task in the Nation for not being a serious feminist like her predecessor, Anna Quindlen. Although I rarely agree with Quindlen (who now writes a column for Newsweek), at least she respects readers enough to bother laying out an argument, complete with examples to back up her points. Reading Quindlen is rarely a waste of time; reading Dowd usually is.
And yet Dowd still has enough true-believer fans for Bushworld to have spent the last three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. This struck me when I read, in the New York Observer's profile of the Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz a few months ago, a quote from one of Rabinowitz's Greenwich Village neighbors describing her disapprovingly as "the person who doesn't like Maureen Dowd."
What a cloying, insular world that conjures up like the scent of an entire rose garden in one small bottle of attar. So for the benefit of people like that neighbor, perhaps an explanation is in order.
Dowd's relentless shallowness and silliness are her most obvious crimes against readers. And because she's the only woman with a plum twice-a-week spot on the New York Times op-page, the tacit and insulting message she gives off is that female political thinkers can't be expected to actually think. Sometimes when she's skittering around, like a water-beetle on a pond's surface, Dowd happens upon a notion she likes a lot. But rather than develop it into an actual argument, she just repeats it endlessly, like an eight-year-old with a knock-knock joke.
Take the column that inspired the title of Bushworld. After its opening line ("It's their reality. We just live and die in it.") the column consists entirely of 25, mostly one-sentence aphorisms. Examples: "In Bushworld, you brag about how well Afghanistan is going, even though soldiers like Pat Tillman are still dying..." "In Bushworld, we're making progress on the war on terror by fighting a war that creates terrorists." "In Bushworld, they struggle to keep church and state separate in Iraq, even as they increasingly merge the two in America." And so on.
Set aside for a moment that these "Bushworld" statements are awfully easy to parody: "In Maureenworld, soldiers would never die in battle." "In Maureenworld, we can assume that before the war on terror, terrorists weren't a problem." "In Maureenworld, comparisons between a president who believes in God and people who think women should be stoned to death for religious reasons can be made with a straight face." And so on.
The main reason a person might not like Maureen Dowd is that beneath all the cutesiness lurks thinking that is ignorant, hysterical, and unoriginal. There's never anything in a Dowd column that you haven't heard a hundred times before at any upscale cocktail party.
A few months ago, Dowd began a column by continuing her cheerleading for the 9/11 commission but concluded it with what really seems to be bothering her: President Bush's religious ideas.
His statement that "freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world" led her to worry that, "Given the Saudi religious authority's fatwa against our troops...we really don't want to make Muslims think we're fighting a holy war."
Maybe not. But it makes you wonder how Dowd would have responded to Lincoln's Gettysberg Address hope "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Probably she would have pointed out that this might further offend the Confederate Army, who after all thought God was on their side too.
In Maureenworld, anything can happen. Except an idea.