The Magazine

The Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd

A guide to reading the New York Times columnist.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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MAUREEN DOWD'S New York Times columns used to be fun. Whether you agreed with her or not, they were witty and incisive. Sometimes they were even insightful. But recently, many readers are asking the same question as a letter writer to the Denver Post: "What has happened to Maureen Dowd lately? . . . she is no longer informative, clever or entertaining, just childish and vindictive." The truth is, Maureen Dowd hasn't changed; the times have. She's always been a formulaic writer, but the formula has never been less appropriate (and therefore more conspicuous) than it has since September 11, 2001. The formula consists of five basic principles that underlie almost all of her writing.

THE FIRST IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: The first and most important rule is what might be termed the People magazine principle: All political phenomena can be reduced to caricatures of the personalities involved. Any reference to policy concerns or even to old-fashioned politicking is, like, so passé. And, of course, with every caricature goes a nickname.

The First Law is the reason that Dowd used to be so much fun to read--it's the reason she won the 1999 Pulitzer for her columns on the Lewinsky scandal. The Lewinsky scandal was all about personality; more than that, it was about personalities that lent themselves to caricature. So when Dowd wrote about President Clinton ("the Grand Canyon of need") and Monica Lewinsky (the "relentless" woman "clinging to some juvenile belief that the President loved her") and Linda Tripp (who "rides on a broomstick") and Ken Starr (a "sex addict"), it just seemed apt.

The problem is, the nation now has matters of life and death to attend to. But Dowd is still drawing caricatures. For instance, her September 25, 2002, column compares Bush administration officials to middle school "alpha girls" for snubbing Gerhard Schröder's German government after it ran for reelection on an anti-American platform. Says Dowd, "now we have the spectacle of the 70-year-old Rummy acting like a 16-year-old Heather, vixen-slapping those lower in the global hierarchy, trying to dominate and silence the beta countries with less money and fewer designer weapons."

Or consider her August 21 column about a meeting of top officials at Bush's ranch. Her analysis here consists of breaking the world into two opposing camps: the "Whack-Iraq tribe" and the "Pesky Questions tribe." The former includes "Rummy, . . . W., Cheney, Condi, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle." The latter includes "Mr. Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Wesley Clark." How subtle--only the ones she doesn't like get nicknames. The reason that the "Whack-Iraq'ers" are so "gung-ho" is that "the Cheney-Rummy-Condi Axis of Anti-Evil believes in unilateralism so fervently." It's just a character trait, see? They must have a multilateral fiber deficiency.

In any case, it can't be because they think that Iraq poses a serious and immediate threat. We know that, because in her column on the opposing camps in the Iraq debate, Dowd doesn't see fit actually to discuss Iraq at all. What bearing could that have on the debate? Likewise, in the "alpha girls" column, Dowd never considers that there could be sound reasons of state for snubbing Germany--for instance, a "forgive and forget" policy might encourage politicians in other countries to pander to crude anti-Americanism, a pandering that would have the effect of reinforcing and strengthening the sentiment among the general population. But let no such considerations emerge from Dowd's pen: The First Law forbids them.

THE SECOND IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: It's easier to whine than to take a stand or offer solutions. Consider this: In her many columns to date lobbing stinkbombs at the "Whack-Iraq'ers," she has yet to come out and say that she opposes war in Iraq. The reason, presumably, is that she would then have to actually confront and argue against the administration's reasons for attacking Iraq. Instead, she offers this commentary on Bush's U.N. address (from her September 15 column): "But there was no compelling new evidence. Mr. Bush offered only an unusually comprehensive version of the usual laundry list. Saddam is violating the sanctions, he tried to assassinate Poppy, he's late on his mortgage payments, he tips 10 percent, he has an unjustifiable fondness for 'My Way,' he gassed his own people, he doesn't turn down the front brim of his hat."