Maureen Dowd’s Sorkin-esque mess: What’s behind her unreadable swipe at Obama’s golf game

The Times columnist leads the pundit class's vacant, meaningless criticism of the "optics" of presidential golfing

Topics: Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, Punditry, Ferguson police shooting, Ferguson, isis, James Foley, Gun Control, Newtown school shooting, Aaron Sorkin, Iraq, Media Criticism, ,

Maureen Dowd's Sorkin-esque mess: What's behind her unreadable swipe at Obama's golf gameMaureen Dowd (Credit: MSNBC)

You only needed to get about two words into Maureen Dowd’s latest column for the New York Times before realizing that something tragic was unfolding.

Dowd, like almost every other pundit in the country, had noticed that things were happening in the world while President Obama was on vacation, and that Obama, while on vacation, played some golf. But while other pundits contented themselves to mere hand-wringing over the optics of the president golfing while THE WORLD BURNED, Dowd felt there was a larger point to be made. Actually, that’s not quite right – she felt that she could give the impression of making a larger point when in reality she’d just be making just as facile an argument as everyone else. And so she repurposed the Gettysburg Address, changing the words to make it seem like President Obama was delivering it about the game of golf.

And she called it … wait for it… “The Golf Address.” Like the Gettysburg Address, but with “Golf” instead:

FORE! Score? And seven trillion rounds ago, our forecaddies brought forth on this continent a new playground, conceived by Robert Trent Jones, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when it comes to spending as much time on the links as possible – even when it seems totally inappropriate, like moments after making a solemn statement condemning the grisly murder of a 40-year-old American journalist beheaded by ISIL.

Dowd’s piece continues on like this, ham-fistedly weaving the Ferguson situation and the threat from the Islamic State into a trite, unreadable critique of the president. The point, in case you missed it, is that Obama enjoys golfing and does it a lot, which a serious president like Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t do. And conservatives loved it, as they finally had confirmation – from a New York Times liberal, no less – that Obama really is a lazy good-for-nothing who just golfs all the time when he’s not also forcing government down our throats all the time.



What should Obama have done instead? Well, not golfed, presumably. But he also should have used his magic president powers to fix everything. That, at lease, was the recommendation Dowd put forth in her previous column, which also critiqued Obama for golfing instead of LEADING:

The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links. Unlike L.B.J., who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected.

Almost everything else – from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson – just seems like too much trouble.

Obama did actually push for gun control legislation relentlessly after Newtown. (At the time, Dowd faulted Obama for not using the same arm-twisting strategy that was used to such great effect in Aaron Sorkin’s “The American President,” which is a movie and not real life.) And touring the border wouldn’t have done anything to resolve the problems posed by the influx of undocumented immigrant children. Obama did suggest a legislative fix to the issue, but the House GOP rejected it and sat on their hands until stumbling toward a last-minute vote on a bill to make it easier to deport just about everyone.

As for Ferguson, it’s true that the president was restrained in his reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, but he also sent the attorney general to Ferguson to meet with community and law enforcement leaders. The White House is conducting outreach and coordinating efforts with local civil rights leaders. The president ordered a review of the processes by which military hardware filters down to local police forces. Dowd disregards all this and instead seems to believe Obama’s mere presence in Ferguson will fix what’s wrong. “I know some people thing I should go to Ferguson,” she snarked this weekend. “Don’t they understand that I’ve delegated the Martin Luther King Jr. thing to Eric Holder?”

This is the terrible sort of analysis that emerges when you prioritize the “optics” of presidential action over the actual action. There was a great hue and cry from the pundit class when Obama, after delivering remarks on the death of James Foley, went to go play a round of golf. The president had spoken to Foley’s parents via telephone and offered his condolences. Everyone seems to agree that his televised statement on Foley’s murder hit all the right notes. That same day, airstrikes were ordered against ISIS.

But all that anyone talks about is the fact that he went golfing, which is utterly inconsequential to anything involving ISIS, James Foley or U.S. policy in general. Reporters pressed the deputy White House press secretary on Obama’s golfing, asking question after question about the “optics”:

The President has taken a lot of flak for going golfing this week during some of these tumultuous times.  Could you just explain why he does this?

[…]

Given the gravity of the events that he’s had to struggle with while he’s been up here, has there been any consideration, any internal discussion of saying, hey, maybe a day off from golf might not be a bad idea?  I mean, particularly yesterday, when you’re — or particularly dealing with, in the wake of what happened with James Foley, and the President comes out and gives a very powerful statement on that murder, and then he goes right from here to a golf course.  Is there any discussion of maybe, in a circumstance like that, it’s best to stay off the links for a little while?

[…]

I have no doubt about that.  What I’m asking is, is the optics in what people see.  And you saw the kind of split-screen photos that we’ve seen in newspapers yesterday — the President making that statement, the terrible tragedy that the Foley family is dealing with, and then the shots of the President kind of laughing it up at the golf course right afterwards.

Lazy pundits like Dowd focus on golf and treat politics like an Aaron Sorkin movie because criticizing political theater is easy and eye-catching. Ultimately it means nothing. The president is still president even when he’s golfing or mountain biking or doing “Laugh In.” So instead of losing our minds over the “optics” of a recreational activity, perhaps let’s let policy considerations guide our commentary. Less than a month from now, nobody will care about that one time Obama went golfing. But we’ll still be bombing ISIS and we’ll still be trying to sort out the situation in Ferguson.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...