News & Politics

Cathy Seipp on Maureen Dowd: Too Cute for Words

Media critic Cathy Seipp. Photograph courtesy of The Independent Women’s Forum.

March, 22, 2007: Media critic Cathy Seipp died yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 49. A non-smoker, she lived in Los Angeles and made a name for herself as a biting, often funny critic of the Los Angeles Times. She came by the offices of The Washingtonian in 2002, and proposed an article on New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. It was published in the February 2003 issue of The Washingtonian, and caused more subscription cancellations than any story published in the past five years. Here is the story.

Too Cute for Words 

By Catherine Seipp 

Maureen Dowd can be funny when writing about movies or fashion. But she should stay out of politics. 

I suppose we all have our own time-to-stop-throwing-the-newspaper- across-the-room-and-just-cancel-the-damned-thing moments. For me it was November 14, 2001, when I encountered five little words in Maureen Dowd's New York Times column about the wrongness of invading Afghanistan. "The world's in a swirl," wrote Dowd, "and things are changing at a dizzying pace."

Yes, things have a way of doing that. But the world's in a swirl? There was something so quintessentially girlish and inane about the phrase–so quintessentially Dowd, with its rhymey, fashion-runway language. Her point, if she had one, was that war is unpleasant and the Northern Alliance is mean. P.S.: President George W. Bush was becoming "chummy" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"When Mr. Bush called Mr. Putin to invite him to the ranch," Dowd wrote, fluttering toward her conclusion, "the Russian president said he was looking forward to riding horses with the American president. Mr. Bush had to explain that he doesn't ride. He prefers to saddle up his jeep or his golf cart, Gator, around the ranch."

And this meant . . . what? Nothing, but in a Maureen Dowd column, meaning has become unnecessary. It was just another schoolgirl spitball lobbed at Bush: Screw you and the horse you didn't ride in on.

Iwasn't the only one who noticed Dowd's precious column that day. "Little Miss Dowd says 'Ick,' " Lucianne Goldberg noted on her Web site, summing up not only Dowd's inane tone of that moment but pretty much everything the New York Times's star columnist has written after September 11. That things are changing at a dizzying pace seems to have thrown her for a loop. You could stuff all Dowd's anti-whack-Iraq columns into a hat and pull one out at random; odds are "Little Miss Dowd Says 'Ick' " would be the theme in a nutshell.

Let's consider some of her latest work. This past November she was invited by the Saudi government to what might be called the Useful Idiot tour of Saudi Arabia, land of colorful characters. Did you know that citizens of Riyadh dislike Americans and don't want to be told what to do by President Bush and that women there can't drive? Yes? Well, now Maureen does too. She also now knows that Saudi police don't want any women to show their ankles–"I thought I'd catch a break because I'm an American Catholic, not a Muslim." You have to wonder about the provincialism of someone who has to travel halfway round the world to discover that.

By December, Dowd was safely back in her microworld of DC shoptalk and fashion observations, which was a relief, because her biggest weakness is foreign policy and reading her pie-eyed observations of life in Saudi Arabia, so disappointingly different from I Dream of Jeannie, was like watching a car wreck. Still, there was nothing that was not stale. A Christmas column about the growing popularity of plastic surgery (who'd have thunk it?) noted the impassiveness of Dick Cheney's mug and concluded with this moral: "In the White House, as in so many other American homes this holiday, appearance counts."

A December column about Bill Frist included the usual lame wordplay–"So why did they give this 50-year-old surgeon . . . room to operate?" And as Glenn Reynolds noted on his Instapundit site, the column included "classic New York Times use of passive voice . . . although Dowd is careful to slip in that Bill Frist has been 'scolded for racial insensitivity,' she doesn't bother to say by whom, or for what."

The Maureen Dowd story is at least vaguely familiar to anyone who follows the careers of media stars. Unlike so many of her Ivy League-educated colleagues, she's a local girl from a working-class Irish Catholic family, the youngest of five children of a DC cop.

Dowd majored in English at Catholic University, and her first job was at the pool-and-tennis club at the Washington Hilton. She got her start in journalism taking dictation and phone messages at the old Washington Star. She didn't do either of these tasks very well, according to her own recollection, but editor Jim Bellows–legendarily sharp at spotting nascent writing talent–promoted her to reporter.

When the Star folded, Dowd worked at Time for a while, then landed at the New York Times, moving from the Metro desk back to Washington in 1986. Ever since, she's been something of a golden girl.

There's a famous story from the early '90s illustrating her status at the Times. At a staff meeting, then-executive editor Max Frankel angered Dowd by remarking that her perhaps overly flattering front-page story about Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan biography was beneath the paper's standards. Dowd walked out–some say she also threatened to quit–and soon received flowers and an apology.

Dowd is famously private for a journalist. I couldn't find any story about her that she cooperated with after 1995. "Ms. Dowd does not speak to the press," her assistant told New York magazine media columnist Michael Wolff in 1999. Dowd's inner circle over the years has included Times executive editor Howell Raines, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, Times reporter Alessandra Stanley, The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, actor Michael Douglas (in his pre-Catherine Zeta-Jones days, at least), and pundit Michael Kinsley. Esquire featured her as one of its "Women We Love" in the early '90s. But to many outside her coterie, Dowd has become the Woman You Love to Hate.

Critics have called her style catty, or at least kittenish. But this doesn't really seem apt anymore. Cats scratch, and Dowd no longer draws blood.

An effective criticism of Bush's foreign policy has to involve more than just chirping "Rummy" and "Boy Emperor" from the sidelines or dreaming up whimsical dialogues. Dowd is now more pixieish than kittenish, which is part of what makes her so annoying. Who wants to deal with Tinkerbell flitting around when you're trying to read the op-ed pages?

Although Dowd is now lambasted on the Internet–where she's regularly referred to as Moron Dud and Modo the Dodo and Stupid Pan Dowdy–she has never been beyond media criticism, despite being something of a sacred cow in Washington and at the Times.

James Poniewozik, now at Time, summed up the anti-Dowd case for Salon in 1999. "Does Maureen Dowd believe in nothing?" he asked rhetorically, just after she'd won the Pulitzer for cute but essentially trivial columns about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "You could say that Maureen Dowd believes in being an asshole, which is not an insignificant journalistic tenet."

Perhaps because of her slipperiness, Dowd has served as something of an inkblot: People disliked her according to their own personal concerns and prejudices. After Dowd got her Times column in 1995, Susan Faludi took Dowd to task in the Nation for not being a politically correct liberal and serious feminist like her predecessor Anna Quindlen.

Investigative reporter Katherine Boo, now at the Washington Post, took up the case against Dowd in a 1992 piece called "Creeping Dowdism" for the Washington Monthly. "Campaign planes and buses are freighted with Dowd disciples: hyperliterate capital-W Writers with an eye for detail and an ear for the shuffling going on behind the curtain," Boo warned. As a result, she added, "the democratic process is reduced to Pirandello, to theater of the absurd."

I remember hearing colleagues at the time carp that Dowd's coverage of the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton campaigns was overly personal and unfair, but I've never bought the notion that traditional dry-as-dust reporting is therefore pristinely unbiased. I admired Dowd's style when she was a reporter. The Times op-ed page's loss when she arrived there was also the Washington beat's loss. Her famous campaign-trail observation that Clinton's visit to Oxford University was a return to a place "where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree" still stands as one of the all-time great leads.

Her frequent forays into Times pop-culture coverage produced pieces that were often dazzling: Her interview with Kevin Costner remains a definitive portrait of the movie star as clueless egomaniac. Her observations of the first President Bush's many malapropisms–like referring to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as the Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird–certainly added to the culture, providing years of fodder for Saturday Night Live.

Complaints about dowd have moved beyond her flashy reporting style and water-beetle habit of skimming the surface.

Her crimes against readers now fall into three main categories–formulaic nuttiness, posturing, and condescension. Sometimes she manages to compress all her essential traits into the first few paragraphs, such as this August 21 "Coup De Crawford" column about Bush and his advisers.

"The plotters are meeting down at the Ponderosa today," Dowd began, efficiently combining her formulaic alliteration and pop-culture habits–in this case, a reference to the old TV western Bonanza (a reminder that Bush is a cowboy).

"They waited to huddle in Crawford until the flower child Colin Powell had gone up to the Hamptons, ensconced with the white-wine-swilling toffs scorned by the president." Dowd is actually on Powell's side here, though it takes a minute to figure that out, what with all the sneering, but she can't resist reminding you of her girl-of-the-people street credentials–as if she's never been to the Hamptons or swilled white wine herself. The vital Dowdism in this graph, though, is toff–a British expression only an affected American would use–because it gets her reflexive posturing established up front. *

"With the diffident general brunching with the Dean & DeLuca set [more faux populism, more sneering], Cheney, Rummy, Condi, and W. [check out the nicknames] can get down to bidness [in case you've forgotten, Bush is a cowboy] on the ranch, scheming to smoke Saddam. [Two, four, six, eight–when in doubt, alliterate.]

"We used to worry about a military coup against civilian authority. Now we worry about a civilian coup against military authority." Dowd's condescension is encapsulated in these "we"s–her insulated world makes her assume that "we" all worry about this.

How, I wondered at the time, can the commander-in-chief of the armed forces execute a civilian coup? Josh Chafetz, an American graduate student at Oxford who keeps track of Dowd's disconnects, explained it the next day on his Web site. "I hate to bring up a pesky thing like the Constitution, especially when dealing with a legal eagle like Dowd, but . . . the military is meant to be under civilian control. The idea of a civilian coup against military authority is completely incoherent in a democratic state."

Chafetz expanded his Dowd observations in October for a Weekly Standard piece called "The Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd." I asked him why he thought Dowd is so infuriating now. "You can't really argue against her," he e-mailed back. "You can't say why she's wrong because first you'd have to identify a point to her column, and that's precisely what you can't do because of the sort of columns that she writes."

But I'd say that it's her condescension, even more than her superficiality and silliness, that so rankles readers. I don't know Dowd, and I live in Los Angeles, not Washington, so I only see her when the Times flies her out to the summer TV press tour every July.

She cuts a memorable figure because she attends press conferences in a bizarrely casual getup: tank top over sports bra over sweatpants over running shoes, with hair up in a clip and–this part never varies–sunglasses worn indoors. (Is there something about Washington retinas that makes them peculiarly sensitive to the light in Los Angeles hotel ballrooms? The only other attendee who affects the sunglasses-indoors shtick is the Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes.)

Dowd's goin'-to-California costume is, at first glance, merely a dated and preposterous notion of how the natives dress around here–as if I assumed the thing to wear to any Washington event were a Reagan-red Adolfo suit. It's silly, clichéd, and corny. But more than that, it's a patronizing display on Dowd's part. Just like her columns.

Catherine Seipp is a UPI columnist and former Los Angelescolumnist for Mediaweek. She has also written for Reason, American Journalism Review, Salon, and TV Guide.