Her mother was an Irish rebel, and her father a good cop who could spot a phony a mile away. These inherited traits turned Maureen Dowd into an award-winning columnist and author.
Somewhere in Australia there’s an Irish lad called Rowan McCormick who broke Maureen Dowd’s heart. When she went back in the early 1970s to visit her homestead in County Clare, hard by the majestic Cliffs of Moher, she met him and fell madly in love.
Her older sister Peggy remembers that she was seriously worried they might never see Maureen again. “She was totally in love. We didn’t think we would bring her back,” Peggy remembers.
The Dowd family had traveled over with their mother to keep her company. Their dad, Michael, was national chairman of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the annual convention was being held in Ireland. Sadly, like most summer romances, Dowd’s didn’t work out, and her beau departed for Australia. But when she was Down Under a few years back on a book tour she put out an all-points bulletin and he came running. Alas, he was married now and settled down. Dowd still sounds disappointed.
It is quite an image – Maureen Dowd, scourge of every president since Poppy Bush and, arguably, the most powerful journalist in America thanks to her must-read column in The New York Times – talking of the road not taken, living a quiet life as a barkeep’s wife back in Clare.
Maybe that image isn’t so fanciful, though. Spending a few hours in the back of a midtown Manhattan restaurant with Maureen and her sister Peggy is akin to catching up with relatives in a snug bar in the west of Ireland.
After lunch the theater crowd drifted away to the matinee performances and left the world to us. The Dowd sisters are very close, finishing each other’s sentences, adding a detail here and there.
The talk is soon of Ireland. Peggy is the family historian, and the stories flow like a familiar river.
Peggy has her Irish passport; Maureen covets one. The focus is memories of their father Michael, a son of Ireland who bestrides their lives still, though he is long gone.
Michael from Clare was the son of a poor farmer in a poor country, the second child in the family named Michael after the first died. He was booked on the Titanic in 1914, but his mother cried all night and he couldn’t leave her.
The woman who took his place in the doomed liner survived and they met up years later. Though still a young woman, her hair had turned pure white from the fright of that awful night, or so says the family lore.
Michael eventually came to Washington, D.C., and despite a rudimentary education made it into the police force where he quickly climbed the ladder. Soon after he made detective, he met Peggy Meenehan, whose father managed the family bar.
The cop and the barkeep’s daughter were both champion Irish step dancers. In 1934 they married; the age difference was 18 years. They raised five kids together – Maureen, the youngest, Michael, Martin, Kevin and Peggy.
Maureen’s father was 61 when she was born, but he wrote his age as 50 on the birth certificate.
“It was hilarious that he lied,” Maureen says now, “and as a policeman, he was lying on an official document.”
The Dowds had it rough. Years later when Maureen would sometimes romanticize the 1930s, her mother would wag her finger. “Those were tough and mean times,” mother would tell daughter.
Now Maureen says she knows what she was talking about. “We’re back there,” she says referring to the current economic crisis. “We’re back in a soup can economy.”
The sisters describe Michael as the cool, clean hero, devout and chivalrous to a fault, a man adept at sizing up people and situations like no other. Peggy says Maureen had the same gift from an early age and that she got it from her father.
He loved to read, especially newspapers. “He’d grab a morning, an afternoon and evening paper every day,” says Peggy.
Their strongest memories are of Michael engrossed in the newspaper sitting under a portrait of JFK, one of his heroes. So it is not surprising that Maureen felt the pull to write from an early age. There were already other powerful role models in the family pantheon. Tommy Corcoran, married to a Dowd relative, was FDR’s closest confidant, known to the president as “Tommy the Cork.” He drafted much of the New Deal legislation and reputedly coined the phrases “nothing to fear but fear itself” and “rendezvous with destiny.” Roosevelt’s son Elliott wrote, “Apart from my father, Tom (Corcoran) was the single most influential individual in the country.”
So being around power was also an early experience for the Dowd clan. And Ireland permeated the family’s early years.
Maureen is pictured in the Washington Post at age 2 in 1954, plump and pretty in a shamrock-bedecked dress, posing on St. Patrick’s Day. Typically she critiques her first media appearance – “Look, they had to give me potato chips to make me smile.”
Like Maureen, her dad had political favorites – Truman was one.
“Dad tended to judge politicians by whether he thought they were phonies or not,” says Maureen. “I think that’s one thing I inherited, besides wearing sunglasses indoors.”
As part of his job Michael Dowd guarded FDR and Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare. He loved Truman but didn’t like Bobby Kennedy, who let the side down by not hiring some Irish who needed work on the Hill.
Michael won a medal for bravery and befriended high people, and saw places a young Irish emigrant had no right to dream of. He rose through the ranks of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to become head of the largest Irish organization in America.
Her mother was an Irish rebel. In the 1970s, Peggy Dowd led a demonstration at the British Embassy after Bloody Sunday when 14 were shot by British forces in Derry. To her eternal satisfaction, the then British ambassador had to sneak in through the underground garage.
Maureen and Peggy agree she would have been “delighted” that President Barack Obama recently got rid of the Churchill bust that George W. Bush kept in the Oval Office.
Their parents’ biggest fight occurred on a trip to Ireland. Being a Clare man, Michael Dowd wanted to go to Eamon de Valera’s grave. His wife wanted to pay homage to Michael Collins. The Irish Civil War was almost reenacted.
On another occasion Mike Dowd arrived back in Ireland with an American car, a roadster. The locals were gobsmacked at the likes of this prosperity.
“They thought he was a ‘millunare,’ as he pronounced it,” Peggy says, laughing.
Their father had tried to set up an AOH museum in Washington for Irish artifacts. A priest in Massachusetts sent a holy medal that he had received from the mother of Michael Collins. He swore Collins wore it the day he died in the republican ambush at Beal na mBlath outside Cork city. The medal remains one of the Dowd family’s greatest treasures. Maureen wants to talk to the Irish Government about it.
Their father died in 1971. On her own deathbed many years later in 2005, Peggy Dowd talked out loud to him, leading Maureen and the younger Peggy to believe he was waiting for her. Their mother was hale and hearty for many years before succumbing to old age at 97. She was going blind towards the end. Maureen would go over to her and turn on the daily Mass at 8:30 a.m.
Her mother loved Tim Russert and Meet the Press. She confessed she hated going blind because it meant she couldn’t see Tim Russert any more. The late great NBC anchor returned the favor, often wishing her a happy birthday on air. Somewhere in a green swathe of heaven that TV twosome continues.
When Peggy died, the fulsome Washington Post obituary heading said simply: “Font of Advice.”
In many ways that has never changed. Maureen’s New York Times columns could be read in some ways as letters to the mother she still misses profoundly, full of the piercing insight and gossipy bon mots Peggy Dowd loved.
The old Irish rebel still lives on in her daughter. Mike Quill, the great union leader and 1920s IRA activist, is alleged to have told the immigration man letting him into America that “if there’s a government here I’m against it.” Sometimes it seems Maureen feels that way too.All these years later, the little girl that her father worried was too shy to get on in life has certainly proved him wrong.
Dowd’s meteoric rise to the top of the media pile was achieved through sheer dint of hard work and an unerring eye for the critical detail that everyone else was missing. Along the way she has ended forever the cozy view of women writers as softly-softlys who leave the meaty stuff to the men.