It is hard to believe that such a petite, charming woman as Maureen Dowd could be viewed as a shrew by not only conservatives because of her coverage of President Bush and the Iraq war, but by liberals who have never quite forgiven her for her critique of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
The author and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times, was born in 1952 in Washington, D.C., the youngest of five children. Her mother’s parents were from Mayo. Her father, Michael, immigrated to the U.S. from County Clare in 1914. He joined the Washington, D.C. police force and became inspector in charge of Senate security.
“My dad was the national president of the Hibernians. My mom was the historian of the Hibernians. In fact, that’s how I was conceived, at a Hibernian convention in Newark.” She leans forward to share the intrigue. [Dermot McEvoy talked to Dowd at The Four Seasons Hotel in New York City in September and November, 2004]. “My dad was jealous. Some other Hibernian was paying attention to my mom and they had a big fight and he had to make up. So I was conceived at a Hibernian convention in jealousy and rage.” A burst of laughter ends the story.
Dowd’s journey to the Times and a Pulitzer started with 16 years of Catholic education. After graduation the trip to fame got a little bumpy. She worked at the Washington Racquet Club selling tennis balls until her parents intervened. “They said, ‘We didn’t sacrifice to get you this college degree so you could wear a tennis dress to work every day.'”
Dowd’s brother, Kevin, knew the Metro Editor of the Washington Star and Dowd soon found herself working the lobster shift as a “dictationist.” Eventually she escaped the pool and became a general reporter and a tennis columnist. After the Star folded she worked for Time magazine for two years before being hired by Anna Quindlen at The New York Times.
As strange as it may seem because of the critical columns she writes about the current president, Bush Senior remains one of her biggest fans. “We have always had a good relationship,” she says bluntly. “I don’t really have relationships with politicians in that way, not in the way James Reston [of The New York Times] used to [with JFK]. I try to think of it as not antagonistic, exactly. I just want to be the readers’ advocate. That being said, as a White House reporter, he [the elder Bush] was always lovely and gracious to me. And occasionally now he’ll write me notes.”
When asked if she was surprised by the results of the election, she admits that she wasn’t. “I thought President Bush and Karl Rove held the whip hand throughout the election,” she says, “making John Kerry dance to their tune. His timid, reactive campaign backed up their assertions that he was timid and reactive. Also, W. and Dick Cheney were better at scaring voters to death.”
Although she is hard on the Republicans, Dowd also has some “tough love” advice for the Democrats. “I think they need to stop nominating easy-to-stereotype, wooden Northeast liberals and get some candidates who can capture the music of history and the pulse of the nation in their stump speeches,” she says. “Democrats have a narrative to tell of helping the have-nots and the underprivileged and working class in society; certainly, they can talk about values.”
What kind of an agenda does Dowd foresee for the Bush administration in the next several years? “Dark. Secretive. Conservative. Belligerent. Unilateral. Drilling in Alaska, and in the Irish Sea, if they could figure out a way to claim it.”
When informed she must be doing something right if both sides dislike her so much, she replies in a soft, elusive voice, “The only difference is that I’ve gone from Democratic readers going ‘Dear Media Whore’ to conservative readers going ‘Dear Liberal Slut.'” She considers her predicament before adding thoughtfully, “I always thought Democrats were more genteel when they were mad at you, but they weren’t. They were just as vicious as Republicans.”
When we met last September Dowd was just beginning to promote her book of collected columns, Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk. Her readers relish her cast of characters, wearing sobriquets as veneers — there’s President Bush (aka King George II, W., 43), Dick Cheney (Vice), and the ever popular Donald Rumsfeld (Rummy). She readily admits to having an angle, or, as she puts it, a “shtick.”
“Mine is to be right on the news,” she says, “and to try to be very newsworthy.” When asked why she called it Bushworld, she replies, “They [the Bush administration] created this other universe where everything is backwards, the opposite of the way it is in real life. They’ll be putting more pollution in the air and it will be the Clearer Skies Act. With Iraq, the connection is between Iraq and Al Qaeda and it turns out the connection is Iran and Al Qaeda. We’re fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here, but then they’re coming here too!” She stops to laugh at the inanity of it all. “So it’s a world, it’s like this whole universe, where they never let in any information that doesn’t fit with their preconceived notions.” ♦