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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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).