Hating Dowd for all the wrong reasons

The New York Times columnist is an embarrassing, nasty writer. Does that mean she shouldn't have gotten the Pulitzer?

Published April 14, 1999 12:13PM (EDT)

The news Monday erupted like a massive gastric reflux from last year's media diet: First, Susan McDougal was acquitted, then President Clinton cited with contempt. It was only fitting that the afternoon ended with a final, synthesizing afterbelch: word that Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who had given indigestion to supporters of both Clinton and Kenneth Starr, had won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, "for her fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky."

If the critical buzz over the pre-Pulitzer Dowd is any guide, the choice will be received in many circles with all the enthusiasm of a Nobel Peace Prize for Arkan. Grousing over Dowd's selection will probably be attributed to bad feelings over the impeachment saga. (Dowd was the poster child for media anti-Clintonism among columnists like Michael Wolff and William Powers, who identified her as part of an Irish Catholic sex-police cabal; and after she began roasting Starr, National Review disowned her as "a Clintonite groupie.") But the controversy over Maureen Dowd dates back to when Bill and Gennifer were still whispering sweet nothings about Mario Cuomo -- and it says less about the fallout over Pointlessgate than about competing visions of the purpose of journalism.

Granted, Dowd's obsession with the Lewinsky case was remarkable (and tiresome) even by the standards of the 1998 media: fusing her longtime contempt for Clinton -- whom she had long considered a selfish, dishonest scion of a selfish, dishonest generation -- and the pop-culture circus that she had long made her specialty. There was almost no entertainment reference (Gwyneth Paltrow's "Sliding Doors," "The X-Files") she couldn't work into an anti-Clinton (and, especially beginning last fall, anti-Starr) vamp, or a gratuitous swipe at Monica.

But Dowd was a symbol to media critics of a certain kind of supposedly superficial, cynical journalism long before Monica was even a gleam in Bill's crotch. Dowd made her reputation as a political reporter with the Times for lively reportage (shockingly so, for the Times) that injected cutting observations -- many would say personal opinion -- into her coverage of the 1988 and 1992 political campaigns. (She famously described candidate Clinton returning to Oxford "where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted and didn't get a degree.")

A seminal piece of anti-Dowdiana in a 1992 Washington Monthly praised Dowd's writing and eye for detail, but concluded that her brand of reporting was damaging both journalism and the body politic; Dowd -- and the many imitators who sprung up after her success -- ignored substantive issues for clever but nasty, pop-culture-savvy digs at politicians and the political process, pleasing readers but spreading a "dark vision of the pointlessness of politics ... The democratic process is reduced to Pirandello, to theater of the absurd. Trouble is, this audience can't get up and leave." (The repeated Dowd-criticism theme of affectlessness, moral vacuum and poor imitators, by the way, weirdly echoes 1980s critiques of Ann Beattie.)

Indeed, considering what a darling of the establishment Maureen Dowd apparently is (Newsweek, anointing her a "Titan of 'Tude," called her column "a must-read, if only so you'll be able to recognize her take when it's spouted by the elite for the rest of the week"), it's nearly impossible to find anyone writing anything much good about her. After she inherited her Times op-ed slot from Anna Quindlen in 1995, Susan Faludi, in the Nation, compared Dowd unfavorably with her namby-pamby but ideologically committed predecessor. Dowd didn't really believe in anything but her own cleverness, not passionately enough, anyway. "Maureen Dowd has taken us to Barneys to inspect Gaultier tuxedo jackets ... but she's yet to take a stand on a social or political issue of any importance ... It's as if we've gone from Anna Quindlen to Anna Quibbler."

Dowd criticism continued, more intensely, after she glommed onto the Lewinsky story. Earlier this year, Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix wrote possibly the finest and most comprehensive lambasting, calling Dowd an insubstantial solipsist whose "opinion invariably reflects the conventional wisdom of the moment." Yesterday Kennedy remarked by e-mail that "The Pulitzer judges went for style over substance."

There are two threads common to Dowd criticism. First, her detractors almost invariably praise her "writing talent" -- the surest air-raid signal before an all-out attack in a profession that, deep down, self-loathingly considers an inborn writing gift secondary at best, at worst evidence of laziness, sloppiness or bad faith.

Second, the argument continues, she has squandered that gift to write cynical, nihilistic riffs on the connections between pop culture and politics. (An impression she did little to alter by remarking, on winning the prize, "I'm just so grateful to President Clinton that he never spoke the words, 'Young lady, pull down that jacket and get back to the typing pool.'")

I'm with Dowd's critics on many points, but I don't think either of these arguments holds. First, I've never grasped the hyping of Dowd as master stylist, at least in her op-ed columns -- pretty much standard-issue metro-column fare, with generous deployment of teeny-weeny sentences, one-sentence grafs and repetition, repetition, repetition, e.g.:

Once Ross Perot wanted to make the Patsy Cline song "Crazy" his campaign theme.

At the rate things are deteriorating in our capital, we might consider it for the national anthem. Cher could sing it today at the Super Bowl.

Washington has wigged out.

Conversely, it's in linking politics and pop culture -- the very trademark that marked her as superficial -- that she has made a positive contribution. Dowd recognized that such a hybrid perspective was essential to understanding a politics in which presidents use recovery-movement speech and send signals by eating pork rinds. I say that knowing full well that she's used the strategy to wildly overreach (using "Seinfeld," say, to portray the baby boom as a generation about nothing) and used it as a crutch (i.e., to write columns about nothing). And when she applies it outside domestic politics -- e.g., writing lately on Kosovo -- she seems hopelessly petty and out of her depth. In other words, Dowd popularized an important tool for understanding the world today -- but herself uses it poorly. And ironically, Dowd actually takes the most flak among media- and culture-crit professionals who owe far more to her success than they'd like to admit.

Does Maureen Dowd believe in nothing? When New York magazine published a hand-wringing poll last year showing the public's disdain for the media, Dowd was one of the few writers to say that journalists who whine about their poll numbers are no better than Dick Morris. Dowd is willing to be hated, even if -- as Kennedy points out astutely -- she generally deals with it by isolating herself from the people she writes about (she once described being struck dumb when Lewinsky cornered her in a restaurant to ask why Dowd was so nasty to her). You could say that Maureen Dowd believes in being an asshole, which is not an insignificant journalistic tenet.

More to the point, why is it so important to us that Maureen Dowd believe in something, other than showing our leaders in a harsh light? That her writing, and her imitators, reflect a growing disillusionment with politics that has festered for decades? Come on. We have a president who took a vacation based on polling results; we routinely watch our elections go to the highest bidder. And yet Maureen Dowd and her ilk have made us cynical? In fact, these criticisms of Dowd often come off like frustration with politics and the electorate in general. Why can't the media force people to care more!

Would I have given Maureen Dowd the prize? No -- because, shallow me, I think she's not that hot a writer, not because she hasn't restored America's faith in politics or made a better world. But I have to admit that she took a topic that was perfect for her -- whatever that says about her -- and for better or worse, owned it for a year. If that's not the dictionary definition of Pulitzer-worthiness, it's at least a reasonable argument. For all of her nastiness and embarrassing Hollywood-on-the-Potomac dancing, she was perhaps the columnist in the Lewinsky scandal who advanced the truism "I hate both sides of this mess" and actually sounded like she meant it -- at least as evidenced by the legions on both sides who ended up hating her. In the end, you might be able to gauge her worthiness for the prize by the cries that she should never have gotten it.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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