Volume 75, Number 26 | November 16 -22, 2005

Reporter’s Notebook

Op-Ed columnist finds she’s becoming the subject

By Jefferson Siegel

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Maureen Dowd outside New School University’s Tischman Auditorium on W. 12th St. last week.
In her Sunday Times magazine article last month, “What’s a Modern Girl To Do?” Maureen Dowd appears in a photo sitting at a bar in fishnet stockings and red high heels. She’s turned sideways, as if open to a stranger’s approach, a passive look on her face, as if thinking, “Look at me, but don’t stare.” One can almost hear Joni Mitchell’s “Woman of Heart and Mind” filling the smoky haze:

You think I’m like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams.

A closer look reveals only a water glass by her hand. Beneath the neutral gaze, she could be thinking, “Can’t anyone here hold up their end of the conversation?”

Dowd is the diabolically evocative New York Times Op-Ed columnist whose latest book, “Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide,” has made her both a critical darling and target of reviewers. After all those column inches about the Iraq war, the Pulitzer-winning writer has crafted her take on the war between the sexes.

Last Thursday, Al Franken’s Air America radio broadcast a live segment from New School University’s Tischman Auditorium on W. 12th St. Sandwiched between segments featuring Eric Alterman, The Nation columnist, and several performers from a U.S.O. tour, Dowd sat onstage with Franken before an audience of 150. Her appearance was part of the albatross all contemporary writers must bear: the book promotion tour.

“I get plenty of dates. But, I don’t know, maybe I might get a lot more if I didn’t criticize men for a living” was Dowd’s opening statement, which Franken parried with, “You’re beautiful.” Franken had the opportunity to be her public analyst for a few minutes, to lay bare the thought processes of the only female Op-Ed columnist at the newspaper of record. Instead, he offered that he wouldn’t date her — because he’s married — then adding, that if he could, he would. “Your writing is pretty assertive,” Franken told her, “and guys want a woman who’s nurturing. You seem like a woman who’d be on my case.”

Dowd observed that, “In the Bush White House, women are five times more likely to be single than men.” Referring to Condoleezza Rice and Harriett Miers, Dowd noted that, “they are like Bush’s nannies, they revolve around him and devote their whole lives to him like vestal virgins.”

When Franken got around to the question of the hour, Times reporter Judith Miller’s departure from the paper a day earlier, his follow-up question to Dowd was, “Would she [Miller] go out with you?” As radio’s anti-Bill O’Reilly, Franken eventually yielded the platform to Dowd.

In discussing her new book, Dowd explained why the world needs another primer into humankind’s base instincts, citing the “catfight” as one example. “The catfight serves a deeply fulfilling need in men,” she opined on the friction between herself and Miller. Referring to the touchstone of late 20th-century wisdom, the TV show “Seinfeld,” she quoted, “We think that after the clawing maybe there’s going to be kissing.”

Dowd did manage to segue to a serious appraisal of Miller’s failings: “She [Miller] had been this kind of phantom character in everything I’d written about for five years,” Dowd explained, noting that Ahmad Chalabi, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, was currently in Washington on a state visit. “He [Chalabi] took one or two Iraqi exiles and, through the echo chamber of government and the press, made it seem as though there were a lot more reliable sources.” Miller has been criticized as an enabler of the war by printing Chalabi’s claims without vetting or editorial scrutiny. “I think we [the Times] were part of that echo chamber,” Dowd offered. “Investigative journalism is not stenography. We have to be beyond pure. We have to analyze ourself even to the point where it becomes a hair shirt.”

After the broadcast, Dowd elaborated on a few issues for The Villager. Asked her thoughts on Miller’s departure, Dowd replied diplomatically, “I think that the Times is moving on to a new phase now and Judy is too. Judy is a very strong woman. She’ll have a great second act.”

When asked if Hillary Clinton had any chance to be elected president, Dowd affirmed, “Oh, definitely,” but then qualified her response. “I think maybe people aren’t as ready to vote for a woman as some people think. We don’t even have a permanent female network anchor yet. We have one female columnist at the Times. We have one woman on the Supreme Court.”

Asked to assess Clinton’s potential opponents, Dowd continued, “If she was running against someone unappetizing like Frist, if she was running against someone appetizing like McCain, it would be a bigger problem. But the race everyone is salivating for is Hillary-Condi.”

Did she think impeachment is in Bush’s future? “No, I think the public is really loath to go back there. It’s just so traumatizing.”

When asked if she saw herself writing Op-Ed columns indefinitely, Dowd replied, “I’d like to try something else and give somebody else a shot at opinion writing. I have to figure that out as soon as the book tour is over,” she said, adding, “I’d like to try a novel or some nonfiction or maybe a play. I always get in the middle of these firestorms [so] something a little calmer.”

The past several years have seen the media founder on the shoals of analytical reporting. With little, if any, prewar inquiry into the rationale for invading Iraq and the ongoing assault on a country that did not possess W.M.D.’s, Dowd has been one of the more persistent critics of the war and the administration. At a White House press conference two days before the invasion, Bush was peppered with mostly softball questions. Had Dowd been there, her legendary charm might not have leashed the dogs of war, but the male-dominated press corps could have learned something about having the moxie to voice the tough questions that were crying out to be asked.

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