By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007
Matthew Dowd started out as a Democratic operative, then helped engineer George W. Bush's winning White House campaigns before growing disenchanted and publicly breaking with the president. Now he's reinventing himself once again.
ABC News will announce today that Dowd has been tapped as an on-air contributor and blogger, the latest member of the Bush team to embed himself in the media while their ex-boss still runs the country.
For ABC News, the move is reminiscent of the hiring of George Stephanopoulos, who was brought on as a liberal commentator after leaving the Clinton White House and is now chief Washington correspondent, host of "This Week" and a substitute anchor on "World News."
Sara Just, ABC's acting Washington bureau chief, says the network will benefit from Dowd's "unique background and perspective."
"You'll probably have some Democrats who won't trust him and some Republicans who won't trust him," she says. "We'll just have to let his work speak for itself."
"There's skepticism toward anybody in this business," Dowd says of his new role. While he always tried to portray his candidates "in the best light," he says, "even in Bush World they wouldn't push me out there to spin something. That wasn't what I was good at."
On one issue -- the war -- Dowd cannot claim to be detached. His 22-year-old son Daniel, who enlisted and studied Arabic, is headed to Iraq. "My own personal opinion is we ought to bring the troops home as quickly as possible," Dowd says of the war he defended as a Bush strategist.
Skeptics see a certain irony in an administration that has always been at odds with the Fourth Estate turning into a farm team for the nation's punditocracy. Karl Rove, who wasn't shy about criticizing the press, recently became a Newsweek columnist. Nicolle Wallace was hired as a CBS News commentator shortly after stepping down as Bush's communications director. Michael Gerson signed on as a Washington Post columnist shortly after resigning as Bush's chief speechwriter, while a fellow speechwriter, Matthew Scully, published a long Atlantic Monthly article accusing Gerson of taking credit for others' work.
But while CBS paired Wallace with former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry, and Newsweek simultaneously hired Rove and liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas, ABC is not bringing in another voice to balance Dowd's. Just points out that former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile and former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke are also ABC contributors. "We don't see it as a right-left, point-counterpoint thing," she says. "We don't just look at it as red and blue."
Dowd, 46, was generally accessible to reporters and logged plenty of camera time as a Bush strategist in 2000 and 2004. He was often armed with the latest polling data, a specialty Dowd says will come in handy.
"I have a pretty good handle on the public's needs, wants, desires and dreams," he says.
He has bounced around the political landscape, most recently helping reelect Arnold Schwarzenegger as California governor last year. A Ronald Reagan supporter in 1980, Dowd later worked for Lloyd Bentsen, the senator and 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas. It was through that connection that Dowd met Bush and agreed to work for the Texas governor's 2000 presidential campaign.
Dowd continued to work for Bush at the Republican National Committee through the end of last year, but he went through an increasingly rough time. One of his prematurely born twin daughters died, he got divorced, and he "did a lot of soul-searching" over the war as his son joined the Army, he says. Last spring, in interviews with Texas Monthly and the New York Times, Dowd sharply criticized the president he had served.
He described Bush as isolated and pursuing a war against the weight of public opinion. Dowd says now that he knows few people who would have supported the 2003 invasion had they known that the rationale for the war was "false." And his biggest frustration was the perpetual hostility between Bush and the Democrats.
"It came to the point where I had to say it out loud, to say what my disappointments were," Dowd says. "It was a very hard thing to do, because I really like the guy. We didn't live up to what we said we were going to do: be a different kind of Republican and get rid of the polarization. I don't think he's singularly responsible, but he has to be accountable for his own stake in that."
Will Dowd's high-profile break with Bush influence his analysis for ABC? "I'm going to try my best to say what the truth is," he insists.
Dowd isn't giving up his Austin-based lobbying business, ViaNovo, whose clients range from Fortune 500 companies to elected officials and governments, including the Texas Transportation Department, through a contract that Democrats complained was hidden from them. But he is intrigued by the challenge of shaping public opinion from the other side.
"Maybe this is the next stage of my life," he says.