By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 5, 2005
She skewers public figures in the most personal terms, calling Bill Clinton "the Animal House president," Al Gore "a teacher's pet from hell" and George W. Bush the "Boy Emperor."
But while Maureen Dowd would seem to have a well-developed taste for combat, appearances can be deceiving. Even after a decade of writing a New York Times column, she admits to being "very thin-skinned" about criticism.
"I'm just not temperamentally suited to it," Dowd says. "The first couple of years I spent curled up on the floor and crying." If someone starts talking about her on television, she lunges to switch off the set.
Now Dowd, who zealously guards the details of her personal life, is inviting a different kind of scrutiny with a book about love and war between the sexes. And she knows full well that the kind of questions she raises in "Are Men Necessary?" -- say, whether successful men are put off by high-powered women -- could easily boomerang on her.
"I have no complaints about my personal life," she says in her stately Georgetown home, where the decor ranges from a pink jukebox to an expensively restored Hungarian portrait of a partially disrobed woman. "I get asked out. I don't know how much more I'd get asked out if guys weren't scared of me.
"Any woman who criticizes men for a living -- which I do because politics is still male-dominated -- may have a harder time getting dates. I get plenty."
The book is a rumination about the inscrutability of men, the perils of dating, male anchor clones, makeup, shopping and the demise of feminism in a sex-drenched society -- all while showing a little leg, in a personal sense.
The author is acutely aware of the slashing MoDo image and resigned to hearing that she has some kind of castration complex. When a photographer for Elle magazine showed up for a shoot, he brought a Ken-type doll and a pair of scissors -- and asked Dowd to pose either cutting off its head or stabbing the figurine in the groin. She declined.
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The sense of being a smart, ambitious, alluring woman in a crazy, often infuriating man's world is at the heart of Dowd's take on life.
"I got a column entirely because I was a woman," she says bluntly. But being the only regular female voice on the Times op-ed page has, in her view, been a hazardous endeavor.
"Political aides have been lethally nasty with me and tried to smear me," Dowd says. "For me there's been a price for being no-holds-barred."
The reason: men. "When the criticism comes from women, it's more emasculating and makes them feel more effeminate," conjuring up images of "harpies and nagging wives and mothers."
There are other dangers as well. In 1981, when the folding of the Washington Star left Dowd unemployed, a Time magazine editor interviewed her over a hotel dinner -- and then asked her to spend the night. She said she had to meet her boyfriend.
"I literally screamed in the middle of the street," she says. "I was desperate for a job. I didn't know after that if I would still have the job Monday morning."
Why, then, did she make up with the brute? "If you left a job or didn't take a job every time someone made a pass at you," she says, "your rsum would be so checkered with short-term jobs you could never get a job anywhere."
Dowd also drew unwanted attention from Bob Packwood, the lecherous senator who kept calling to say he loved her picture in Esquire's "Women We Love" issue and insisting she come by for a glass of wine.
Her love life seems, well, snakebitten. There was the top New York producer who, she says, told her that he'd wanted to ask her out between marriages but that her job as a columnist made her "too intimidating."
When Dowd ran into Steve Martin at a party, she told him of her theory that big-shot men prefer to marry support staff. He had just written "Shopgirl," a novel-turned-movie about a rich guy's courtship of a Saks Fifth Avenue glove saleswoman.
"Yes, it works out perfectly," Martin joked.
Of course, when you're a 53-year-old single woman and you write a book bemoaning the state of male affairs, people tend to notice -- just as they noticed when Dowd had a brief fling years ago with Michael Douglas.
The gossip was so breathless that a writer for London's Observer speculated that her relationship with the Clinton pal was prompting Dowd to go easy on the man then facing impeachment. After one of Dowd's columns about Bush ("The Boy Emperor picked up the morning paper and, stunned, dropped his Juicy Juice box with the little straw attached. 'Oh, man,' he wailed, 'North Korea's got nukes. . . . Get me Condi! . . . And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich' "), Rush Limbaugh accused her of being "mean, despicable, childish and immature." Then Limbaugh added: "It's obvious Maureen Dowd hasn't gotten over her breakup with Michael Douglas, who she thinks is a real American president. . . . He blew it by running off with Catherine Zeta-Jones, leaving Maureen Dowd in the lurch."
Typical, says Dowd. Limbaugh, she says, "is not going to talk about Tom Friedman's personal life." (Of course, that might change if the Times foreign affairs columnist were pursuing Zeta-Jones.) But Dowd has a knack for drawing attention: Tongues also wagged when she was dating "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin.
Does Dowd try to have it both ways? Serving up sneak peeks of her romantic life but crying foul when it's invoked by others? Cataloguing the myriad flaws of men without examining her own neuroses? Or is there, as she says, a double standard for hotshot women?
After a Valentine's Day column this year about her crush on an unnamed guy that didn't pan out, Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott wrote that she was using "the precious column inches that every pundit in America covets to take out a personal ad redolent of crumpled cocktail napkins and Dorothy Parkerish wisecracks disguising heartache."
From the early days of feminism, Dowd, a self-described "shy and sensitive" child, felt she didn't fit in. She liked Barbie, she loved Cosmo, she didn't care for recreational drugs or the no-makeup, unisex jeans look. Growing up in Washington with three brothers and a dad who was a D.C. police detective, getting her education in Catholic schools, "it seemed right that men should be running the church and the world," she says. (Her mother, who recently died at 97, was her closest confidante.)
Dowd liked the idea of dating among equals and that women were expected to split the check. "Men would want us because we'd be more fascinating," Dowd says. "Then we realized a lot of men don't really want fascinating. A lot of men just want women who are awed by them."
At the Star, where she started as a dictationist (in the pre-laptop days when reporters phoned in their stories), she dated reporter John Tierney. But she was "so obsessively private," Dowd says, that she didn't want anyone to know. "He thought I was treating it as an affair. Finally he said I should go to a shrink." Now Tierney is in the adjoining office -- they still share a bathroom, she jokes -- as the newest Times op-ed man.
Says Tierney: "When Maureen refused to admit we were going out, I just assumed she was understandably ashamed of me. I now know that secretiveness is one of the key parts of her charm."
Some friends attribute Dowd's behavior to an innate shyness, which makes her brief bursts of literary soul-baring all the more painful.
"It's like Greta Garbo finally speaks," says Jane Mayer, a New Yorker writer. "She is truly private. It's not an act. She was raised that way. . . . It was her dread that this would become an exploration of Maureen's dating life."
What seems to aggravate Dowd most is that post-feminism doesn't resemble the snappy Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy encounters she adores. Instead, says Dowd, women expect male suitors to pay, are obsessed with looks, sport "plastic breasts," and "appointments with dermatologists are the new status symbols. It's hard to find women to talk about books and politics. They all want to talk about skin."
Not that Dowd, who always looks chic at Washington parties and once spent $195 for a seaweed concoction favored by Sharon Stone -- purely for research purposes, she says -- is immune to that sort of thing.
With her looks, glamour and caustic wit, Dowd would be a natural for television, except for one minor problem. By her own account, with her whispery voice and penchant for saying "you know," she sounds like a Valley Girl. On the rare occasions she has mustered the courage to appear with Tim Russert, she says, "It's so terrifying. When you hear that 'Meet the Press' music, I want to faint. Sometimes I'm scared I won't have anything original to say."The Reluctant Columnist
The path to the pinnacle of punditry wasn't an easy one for Dowd.
When she became a Star reporter, the Catholic University graduate spent five years covering Montgomery County. "Even my mom stopped reading my stuff," she says. "I was trying to do humorous landfill stories."
When Dowd made it to the Times in 1983, her novelist's eye for detail quickly dazzled the bosses.
Bill Kovach, then the Times Washington bureau chief, recalls Dowd telling him on the night that Walter Mondale was nominated for president that he seemed unsure whether to hug his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro -- which "saved our bacon" when Dowd turned it into a front-page story. "I always thought she wrote beautifully," he says.
But Kovach was "disturbed" as Dowd moved "more and more in the direction of column writing" while still a news reporter, sparking a journalism-review debate about whether the Times would spawn a legion of cheap Dowd imitators.
Dowd remembers the discussions differently, saying Kovach had told her she was "appealing to people's emotions rather than their intellect, which I found offensive."
Six months after launching her op-ed career in 1995, Dowd told Howell Raines, then the editorial page editor, she wanted out. She agreed to continue only when he threatened to send her back to the Metro staff, triggering "acid flashbacks" of her local reporting days. But the stress continued. She went to a nutritionist, even saw an acupuncturist.
The most persistent criticism of Dowd's columnizing is that she's mostly sizzle and little steak, a clever wordsmith, pop-culture queen and armchair psychologist who fails to take a stand on thorny issues. She would sidle up to John Kerry and ask whether he used Botox, but not dirty her hands by inquiring about his health care policy.
"People who criticize me say I should have focused more on policy or numbers," Dowd says. She insists she is not a liberal columnist, has no overarching ideology and chronicles the political wars as a Shakespearean drama. "In American history," she says, "all of our great traumas -- Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra, Iraq, Harriet Miers -- came from presidents' personal foibles. . . .
"W. is so insulated and infantilized by having sycophants around him that he's become completely blind and deaf to the fact that someone who sucks up to him is not necessarily qualified for the Supreme Court."
At heart, she views herself as a literary fish out of water. "Column writing is not my favorite genre," Dowd concedes. "I'm not a natural polemicist. Everything I love to do -- observations, quotes, letting people reveal themselves -- you just can't stuff into this tiny space."
Dowd caught fire in 1998, the year of sex, thongs and audiotape, as her mocking style seemed perfectly suited to the impeachment melodrama. Monica Lewinsky once confronted her at a restaurant and demanded to know why Dowd was writing such scathing articles about her. The columnist "wimped out" and said she didn't know.
After Bill Clinton had his dog neutered, he told the White House Correspondents' Association dinner that he saw the following column: "Buddy Got What He Deserved, by Maureen Dowd."
In those days, many Washington conversations began, "Did you read Maureen this morning?" Newsweek declared that "she peerlessly skewers the manners of the capital." But when Dowd won a Pulitzer in 1999, some detractors complained that she failed to take a strong stand on much of anything. Critic James Poniewozik offered a semi-defense in Salon, saying: "Why is it so important to us that Maureen Dowd believe in something, other than showing our leaders in a harsh light?"
After 9/11, Dowd began to write more seriously about terrorism, and she has lacerated the White House for botching the Iraq war. But critics say she keeps recycling her satiric ruminations about Bushie, Cheney, Rummy, Wolfie and the neocon gang.
In 2003, conservative bloggers savaged Dowd for unfairly truncating a Bush quote about al Qaeda being "not a problem anymore," when she left out a section in which Bush talked about half the group's top operatives being jailed or dead -- and thus not a problem. Dowd, who ran the full quote two weeks later, defends the editing but says she should have run a correction.
By now she had aggravated readers of all stripes, even while making millions of others laugh. There was talk in media circles that perhaps her once-blinding star had dimmed. And then came the Judith Miller takedown.It's Miller Time
On the morning of Oct. 22, Dowd had the town buzzing again. She took off after the embattled Times reporter who had gone to jail in the Valerie Plame leak investigation and then was criticized by management for misleading the paper about her role.
Miller, wrote Dowd, was not "credible," she wrote "bogus" stories about nonexistent Iraqi weapons, she should have been kept on a "tight editorial leash," and the Times would be "in danger" if Miller returned to the newsroom. Plus, Miller had once dared to eject Dowd from the Times seat at a White House briefing. The stiletto had struck again, this time slipped into a colleague.
The tabloids and blogs screamed "Catfight!" Don Imus asked Dowd whether she and Miller would face off in a Jell-O wrestling match. All of which Dowd found predictable.
"Guys and women just love catfights," Dowd says. "I have to keep a sense of humor about it, even though it's irritating."
She was not acting as a "management hit man," Dowd says, consulting only her friend Jill Abramson, the paper's managing editor, who warned that writing such a piece "would seem like piling on." On the other hand, Dowd figured, "having a column is piling on. That's what I've done to the Bush family for two generations.
"I had written about the WMD scam of the administration. I always felt that Judy was the missing element in some of those columns, a phantom character. I just felt that to keep trust with my readers, I needed to address her role in this thing. I knew as a woman writing about another woman I work with, there would be a catfight element, even though, as they say in 'The Godfather,' it's business, not personal. That's a penalty I have to pay."
It's the quintessential Dowd dilemma: wanting to be judged on her work, feeling that her private life is constantly being picked apart, and yet being savvy enough to mock the very thing she says drives her nuts.
There was a time when Dowd consciously cultivated an air of mystery, reminiscent, perhaps, of the old-time film stars she admires. With this book, by airing her feelings about men, women and sex, and using some words the Times deems unfit to print, she seems to be abandoning that battle.
"I do have an obsession with secrecy, and you lose some of that if you're well known or you date someone well known," she says. "It takes the sexiness away from relationships if it's just for public consumption."
She is, in the end, an elusive subject. Some women find Dowd aloof, and there is a circle of men -- she has many male friends -- who dote on her constantly. She can seem frazzled and insecure one day, asking friends and colleagues for help with a column, kittenish and confident the next.
Are men necessary? Dowd never answers the question, but they sure occupy a central place in her world: "I'm not one of these people who put my professional life first and suddenly look up and don't have a personal life. I always put my personal life first. I just don't always have a personal life to put first."