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.

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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.

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