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."

When confronted with a passage like that, it's hard to know where to begin, but we must be brave. First, notice how she trivializes not only Saddam's violation of U.N. sanctions but even the massacre at Halabja, by including them on "the usual laundry list" along with a joke about being a stingy tipper. Second, notice how she leaves out a few of the more important "laundry list" items--like the fact that Saddam continues to stockpile and build weapons of mass destruction and the fact that he funds terrorism. Finally, observe that she tells us there is "no compelling new evidence" without telling us why the old evidence--"the usual laundry list"--is insufficient. To do that would require considering policy arguments and offering alternative ways to combat Saddam's litany of abuses. Into such territory, Dowd is loath to stray.

And she did almost exactly the same thing during the Afghanistan campaign. On October 28, 2001, she asked "Are we quagmiring ourselves again?" Of course, she didn't offer an answer or any suggestions as to how to get out of a quagmire, if, indeed, we were in one. A week later, on the strength of a single misstep (the murder of CIA-friendly Abdul Haq), she wrote, "We're sophisticated; they're crude. We're millennial; they're medieval. We ride B-52's; they ride horses. And yet they're outmaneuvering us." No doubt spurred into action by Dowd's prod, American-backed forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif five days later, and Kabul fell four days after that. Just over a month after Dowd informed us that we were being outmaneuvered, the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, fell.

THE THIRD IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: It is better to be cute than coherent. Along these lines, Dowd's favorite rhetorical device is parallelism. For example, from her June 12 column: "The Islamic enemy strums on our nerves to hurt our economy and get power. The American president strums on our nerves to help his popularity and retain power." And from August 18: "[Bush Sr.]'s proudest legacy, after all, was painstakingly stitching together a global coalition to stand up for the principle that one country cannot simply invade another without provocation. Now the son may blow off the coalition so he can invade another country without provocation." Her phrasing is so cute that the outrageous moral equivalence she's drawing almost slips by unnoticed: She just compared the president of the United States to the September 11 terrorists and to Saddam Hussein.

Of course, the parallels are total nonsense. The administration's terror warnings to the public (the subject of the first quote) may not have been handled perfectly, but their goal is hardly to terrorize the American public. Officials have to walk a fine line between scaring people too much and too often and not telling them enough (Dowd has repeatedly criticized the administration for withholding information). And Bush's desire to attack Iraq is hardly "without provocation": Baghdad is in violation of U.N. sanctions; Iraq takes regular shots at U.S. and British planes patrolling the no-fly zones; and there was the little matter of attempting to assassinate a former U.S. president. And that's not to mention the justifications on preemptive and humanitarian grounds.

But the worst example of Dowd's favoring cuteness over coherence comes from her August 21 column (yes, the same one featured under the First Law--it was quite a column). "We used to worry about a military coup against civilian authority," she wrote. "Now we worry about a civilian coup against military authority." Now, of course, Dowd is just being cute. Presumably she knows that civilian control over the military is one of the necessary conditions for democratic government, a condition that makes the very concept of a civilian coup against military authority incoherent. But she's using this bit of cuteness to make a point every bit as nonsensical as a literal reading of it. She's trying to argue that because several current and former military officers are distinctly less hawkish than some of the civilian leadership . . . well, it's not quite clear what, since she doesn't tell us where she stands on the issue (see the Second Law, above). But she thinks it ought to give us pause. She writes that Bush "signaled his civilian coup" by telling an AP reporter that he was reading Eliot Cohen's "Supreme Command." She gives a one-line summary of the book (it "attacks the Powell Doctrine and argues that civilian leaders should not defer to 'the fundamental caution' of whiny generals on grand strategy or use of force"), and then drops the matter. Actually addressing Cohen's point, it seems, would require too many words--words that wouldn't be nearly as cute as "Whack-Iraq'ers."

THE FOURTH IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: The particulars of my consumer-driven, self-involved life are of universal interest and reveal universal truths. Nowhere was this law more clearly illustrated than in Dowd's reaction to last fall's anthrax attacks. On October 17, 2001, for example, she opened her column with the line, "I am typing this wearing long black leather gloves." Dowd went on to explain that she had been wearing latex gloves, but she "felt the need for a more stylish sort of sterility" (a Dowd-like commentator might note ungenerously that this line describes her writing almost perfectly).

But for Dowd, fashion isn't just a barrier against germs--it's also her little way of fighting al Qaeda. So, she tells us on October 10, 2001: "I decide to defy the foul men who hate women. I wear high heels to church." The truth is, though, that what really scares her about the anthrax attacks is that the terrorists had the temerity to attack journalists! Again, from the October 17, 2001, column: "Has the creep from Al Qaeda been living in the eighth century so long he hasn't heard about not killing the messenger?" Terrorism is bad enough, but now it's personal.

Finally, on October 21, 2001, she broke down and confessed: "I'm a spoiled yuppie who desperately wants to go back to a time before we'd heard of microns and milling, aerosolization and clumps in the alveoli." And, of course, her wants, her fears, and her sense of style are just what we read the Times op-ed page to learn about.

THE FIFTH IMMUTABLE LAW OF DOWD: Europeans are always right. Whenever Dowd quotes a Continental, she allows the quote to stand on its own, as if it were, by virtue of the very Europeanness of its speaker, self-evidently true. Thus, on May 26, 2002, in the midst of President Bush's tour through Europe, she reported that "some Europeans sneered that 'Bully Bush' had turned into something even more irritating: a missionary." Three days later, she reported that "Parisians were indifferent to the president's arrival, and a few gave his motorcade the intercontinental finger of disapproval, as had some Berliners." Of course, the only European she seems actually to have spoken with is a French journalist at the Bush-Chirac press conference, who told her "with a grimace" that "Bush is so . . . Texan."

Fortunately, Dowd doesn't actually need to speak to people, because, as we learn in the same column, she can read the little cartoon thought bubbles that appear over their heads. While Bush is speaking, Chirac's thought bubble apparently reads, "Quel hick."

More recently, in a September 18, 2002, column that also exhibited classic Third Law behavior, Dowd wrote of the European desire to "contain the wild man, the leader with the messianic and relentless glint who is scaring the world"--President Bush, of course. Europeans "now act more nervous about the cowboy in the Oval Office who likes to brag on America as 'the greatest nation on the face of the Earth' than the thug in the Baghdad bunker." Not a word on how patently absurd it is to compare the democratically elected president of the United States to a mass-murdering, terrorist-sponsoring, anti-Semitic, expansionist despot. If the Europeans think that Bush is a missionary, a cowboy, a menace, and a hick, then he must be. And if the Europeans don't think Saddam poses a threat--then what are we so worried about?

OCCASIONALLY Dowd still turns out a good piece. Her June 5, 2002, column on squabbling between the CIA and the FBI worked well, because it was a petty, personality-based issue, thus lending itself to a petty, personality-based treatment. But the Clinton administration is ancient history; most issues can no longer appropriately be viewed through this prism. Any yet Maureen Dowd keeps plugging away with the same old formula. The Immutable Laws prove . . . well, immutable.

If you don't believe me, hang on to this article. And the next time you read a Dowd column, read it by the numbers.

Josh Chafetz is a graduate student in politics at Merton College, Oxford, and the co-editor of oxblog.blogspot.com, where the Immutable Laws of Dowd were developed with some help from readers (especially Stephen Green and Sean Roche).