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.
Since Bush was inaugurated in 2001, Dowd has referred to his father as “Poppy” in nineteen columns. “Poppy Bush” has appeared in her column nine times in 2006 alone. “Vice,” or VP Cheney, has found himself referred to as a cleverly lame metonym for sin ten times in the past six months. And Dowd, who is decidedly not a card games columnist, has used the nickname “Rummy” in thirty-three columns in the past twelve months. While Bush et al. deserve rebuke for their actions, they don’t deserve ridicule for the imaginary motives to which a columnist seeks to tie them.
Dowd often plays doctor and dons the tweed jacket of the armchair shrink. Depending on whom you ask, psycho-historiography reached either its apex or nadir with the publication of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther in 1958. Erikson tried to explain Luther’s invention of Protestantism by examining his adolescence and childhood. He sought to plop Luther down on an analyst’s couch to determine what led to the 95 Theses. The strength of Young Man Luther was that it seemed entirely plausible; if the evidence Erikson cites had actually been revealed through real psychoanalysis, then his conclusions would have been well founded. The weakness, though, was that it was entirely implausible: One can’t truly analyze a man who’s been dead for four centuries. Erikson did coin the term “identity crisis” to explain what led Luther to the cloth (a rebellion against his biological father) and then to Protestantism (a rebellion against the pope, his spiritual father), but his ultimate conclusions about Luther remain dubious. It’s not exactly fair to claim to peer into a fellow’s soul without actually talking to him.
Dowd has made psycho-history her defining device. When it works, she’s humorous and entertaining. When it doesn’t, she’s amateurish and patronizing. For all the leaps of faith Erikson required his readers to take, he was at least believable as a trained psychoanalyst. Dowd, though, has neither the access to her subject’s innermost thoughts nor the credentials to analyze them. Instead, she composes an opera and then proceeds to deconstruct it. Her Oedipal theories of the Bush 41/Bush 43 relationship are simplistic and hackneyed, storefront chicanery from someone who seems to have read Sophocles but hasn’t deemed actual psychiatric training necessary for practicing psychiatry in public.
Tony Dungy’s job as Colts coach felt a little worse over the weekend, as his team suffered its first loss of the season, 21-14 to the Dallas Cowboys. Game film later revealed that Dallas’s winning touchdown should have been contested (and nullified) by Dungy, who blundered by choosing not to ask for an instant replay. Not to be outdone, though, Dowd’s weekend column peered into Nancy Pelosi’s soul and excoriated the Speaker-elect for her support of John Murtha for majority leader. Pelosi was, according to Dowd, “throwing like a girl.” Her subsequent psychoanalysis of Pelosi’s actions read, “John Murtha’s my friend. He’s been nice to me. I don’t like Steny [Hoyer]. He did something a long time ago that was really, really bad that I’m never, ever going to tell you. And I’m the boss of you. So vote for John.” Neat as that may be, it’s hard to believe that Pelosi’s thought process played out like this (and in such Neanderthal grunts), especially since she owes her newfound authority to voters nationwide who are disgruntled about Iraq and for whom Murtha is a bit of a hero. Dungy erred by failing to allow for a full analysis of the disputed play; typically, Dowd did the same with Pelosi.
Dowd won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for her commentaries on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which the selection committee found to be “fresh and insightful.” In 2000 Homer Simpson (fictionally) won the same award for muckraking exposés on his website; after seeing his sources and scoops dry up, he proposed inventing his own news and reporting on that, to which Lisa retorts, “At least take off your Pulitzer when you say that!” Maureen Dowd is no Homer Simpson, but her eye for veracity has become, perhaps, just as warped.