Maureen Dowd has one of the best jobs available to any American, anytime, anywhere. You could make the case that whoever happens to be Peyton Manning’s coach has the greatest job in America, but even Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy has to answer to owners and general managers, to fans and to a rapacious regional and national media. But as a columnist on the New York Times‘s aggressively unedited op-ed page, Dowd essentially answers to no one.
The tomato-haired beauty has flotillas of fans and stables of sources. She regularly finds herself atop the “most read/e-mailed articles” list on the New York Times website. She boasts the only slightly obnoxious correspondence address of firstname.lastname@example.org; that is, she’s not merely one of the paper’s popular op-ed columnists but rather the Gray Lady’s self-styled Champion of Liberty, Chairwoman of Truth. I don’t have access to Tony Dungy’s e-mail address, but I feel it’s a safe posit that it’s not email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Dungy recognizes that in order to achieve victories and division championships, he actually has to devise a winning strategy and carefully pilot its implementation on the field; the accolades aren’t forthcoming without touchdowns and points on the board.
Editorial page editor Gail Collins gives Dowd eight to ten columns each month (between 5,600 and 7,000 words), standard fare at one of the nation’s prestige papers. Most other Times columnists have fairly recognizable beats: Paul Krugman, the Princeton economics professor, writes about, well, economic issues. Nicholas Kristof, the humanitarian, covers the downtrodden and consistently shat-upon masses. Even David Brooks, who still (and oddly) feels he has to justify his quasi-conservative column’s mere existence in the Times, has established a comfortable niche picking out oddities and hypocrisies among America’s privileged classes, informed by his 2001 book Bobos in Paradise. But as the “liberties” columnist, Dowd is something else.
“Liberties” could mean taking liberties with nicknames. “Poppy Bush and James Baker gave Sonny the presidency to play with and he broke it,” she recently wrote. “So now they’re taking it back.” It’s a delightful simplification of the last six years of history; it’s cute yet still manages to drip with sarcasm. It’s also, however, an example of Dowd’s allegiance to a literary construction of history: It may not have happened, but it would have happened that way in a book or movie. This is how Dowd likes to see the world, and she half-admits as much in a 2005 column about disgraced Times reporter Judith Miller. Dowd writes, “The traits she has that drive many reporters at the Times crazy–her tropism toward powerful men, her frantic intensity and her peculiar mixture of hard work and hauteur–never bothered me. I enjoy operatic types.” Operatic types tend to be flat characters less important for who they are than for how they sing. When it comes to plumbing the depths of humanity, Puccini is no Joseph Conrad, but I’d still rather hear an aria sung from Tosca than a muddled (yet brilliant) passage recited from Lord Jim.
With this mindset, George W.’s thoroughly disastrous presidency is more than just a ho-hum laundry list of missteps and blunders; the good stuff is to be found in his arias and soliloquies, those moments of introspection in which the Decider reveals that he really is nothing more than a petulant kid suffering in his namesake’s shadow. Because this is real life and not Verdi or Conrad, President Bush doesn’t sing arias or deliver soliloquies. The only one who’s really on top of George W.’s psychological motives is George W. himself, and if Dowd wants to delve into them, she has to create her own dramatic record from which to cull evidence.