It's been an unsettling few months for women of a certain age. Between the flameouts of Judy Miller and Harriet Miers, the frantic reentry of Martha Stewart and the sight of former CBS News producer Mary Mapes shaking her gored locks on ABC's "Good Morning America," everywhere you turn there's a power woman either in extremis or declaring she's indestructible, which are usually the same thing.
Remember that ludicrous memo that went out from the White House last week calling on administration functionaries to attend compulsory ethics seminars? It was signed by the president's counsel, Harriet Miers. The poor drudge is back in her old job mopping up the mess in the men's rooms, stoically pretending she's not bitter that a stampede of right-wing rhinos just got done stomping her reputation and flattening her future.
Was it always so hazardous for women in the public eye? The speed of the news cycle means that reputation-wrecking has accelerated for everyone, but when a woman is the subject the vortex of venom reaches a spinning climax.
The only plus is that the revved-up cycle shortens the wait for the inevitable Act 2, when yesterday's battered loser is required to emerge from her chrysalis of shame "looking better than ever."
Check out the buff upper arms of erstwhile tackling dummy Arianna Huffington, whose latest operatic comeback arc -- from reviled conservative salonista and scheming political wife to liberal cyberheroine and Web impresaria -- is chronicled in this month's Vanity Fair.
The New York Observer reports that Times punching bag Judith Miller, after a few dazed weeks limping along the beach in Sag Harbor, was rumored to be deep in "strategy sessions" with a kitchen cabinet of powerful Park Avenue gurus, until she resigned yesterday.
After being burned at the stake, a fab new wardrobe, perhaps. Quoth the Observer: "An orange sweater was draped over Miller's shoulders, and she wore her preferred oversize tortoiseshell sunglasses."
Perhaps we can expect a slick glamour spread of Harriet Miers, 61, in a Versace gown split to the thigh and an eye job, under a blurb that reads, "She's slim. She's free. She's looking hot. Dodging that Supreme Court bullet was the best thing that ever happened to the quiet dynamo from East Texas."
The most depressing thing about the spat between Miller and her colleague/nemesis Maureen Dowd was the tired old debate it kicked off about who's the bigger vamp, Mo or Judy? According to Dowd in a lethal column that put her away, Judy had an unfortunate "tropism" (the lower the blow the loftier the word) for powerful men. Meanwhile, the cover story on Dowd in last week's New York magazine featured a smoldering shoulder shot of the 53-year-old columnist, along with flutters about her "dangerous charm" and "the little black dress with spaghetti straps" she wore on a Letterman show.
Dowd's new book, "Are Men Necessary?," is a fun rant about how women have dialed back their hard-won independence to become alpha geishas servicing the craven weenies of inadequate males, but the elephant in the room is the way Dowd's promotion for her book turns on an onerous, retrosexual pitch for what hot stuff the author is. The more her PR plays up the flame-haired temptress angle, the scarier and more desperate it feels. It's made me put away for good the long, black, stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo boots I unwrapped with racy squeals on my 50th birthday and start seriously considering rhinestone reading glasses.
Dowd's hunt for who or what to blame for her vaunted datelessness recalls Bush's correspondents' dinner routine about looking for Iraqi WMD under his Oval Office desk. The thought of Dowd's girls' nights with fellow Times sirens Alessandra Stanley and Michiko Kakutani sounds about as soft and yielding as Macbeth's three witches on a club crawl.
The bummer of it all is that Dowd is right about the female need to use aggression only as a stealth weapon. The hazard of hitting the big five-oh and beyond is an erroneous sense that you've earned the right not to play by the same rules. Once the hormonal brakes come off, it's easy to crash. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Martha Stewart, 64, tells Fortune. "I fell in a hole."
But she dug her hole herself as surely as Mapes and Miller dug theirs. Since women who are smart and aggressive about their work have to conceal it with charm, when they fall on their faces everyone forgets the smarts and the charm and talks only about the aggression. In Mapes's just-released book, "Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power," she comes off as the kind of rip-snorting rodeo rider of the news I would have killed to work with as an editor. Her gallop through such Mapes-produced "60 Minutes II" scoops as securing Karla Faye Tucker's death row interview or tracking down Strom Thurmond's black illegitimate daughter or exposing the atrocities of Abu Ghraib gives us a heart-racing glimpse of a resourceful TV pro in her fearless prime.
But like Miller (and Stewart), Mapes has tunnel vision about her mistakes. The charge-ahead heedlessness that did her in was what made her a great investigative reporter in the first place. In the book she maddeningly dismisses the central delinquency of Rathergate -- that she never sufficiently nailed down the provenance of the incriminating letters slipped to her by former Texas Air National Guardsman Bill Burkett.
Great reporters regularly dive off cliffs, and it's up to their bosses to yank them back. Mapes herself writes that as she crashed her story over a sleepy Labor Day weekend, she kept wondering why no one at 60 II was aggressively pushing back: "Shouldn't someone be asking me questions? Maybe even yelling a little? I missed the yelling." (Of her previous CBS boss, Jeff Fager.)
In the end I can't help warming to Mapes despite her impenitent refusal to eat crow. She saves the real honesty in her book not for the facts of her professional demise but for what the fiasco felt like from the inside -- the whole armpit-soaking, head-bursting horror of what goes down when the journalistic crapola hits the fan and the blogs are on your case and your mouth is dry from a fear of failure.
Yes, Mapes steered CBS News into a brick wall. But as with Miller and the Times, it was the boys in the front office who gave her the steering wheel and failed to keep an eye on the road and a foot on the brakes. I'm left with a real sense that snuffing out firecrackers like Mapes and Miller is a loss to the news business.
When Larry King asked Barbara Bush about the implosion of CBS's story on her son's National Guard service, the former first lady replied: "In fact, didn't the girl take most of the blame?" She usually does. You got that right, Bar.
(c) 2005, Tina Brown
A short-circuit for power women in the public eye.