‘Tis the season to launch Inkwell’s new MoDo Watch, a monthly feature that will examine the works of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. An intrepid Los Angeles journalist named Catherine Seipp, a writer and media columnist for the alternative weekly L.A. CityBeat, has agreed to be our MoDo Watcher.
In her first installment — which will be of special interests to those who’ve seen “Shattered Glass,” a movie set in the offices of the New Republic magazine — Seipp asks a Very Important Question:
IS MAUREEN DOWD THE LAZIEST GAL IN TOWN?
Is there some new unwritten rule that, in Maureen Dowd’s case, a New York Times columnist’s buttocks must never part company with the seat of the columnist’s office chair? I began to wonder if this might really be true while reading Dowd’s Nov. 2 column about something that — unlike her current favorite topic, foreign policy — she actually knows something about.
Because the movie “Shattered Glass” had just opened, Dowd wrote about disgraced reporters Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jayson Blair of the New York Times. She began the column with a rare scene-setting, she-was-there moment — a 1981 party Dowd threw at which the infamous reporter Janet Cooke, who’d just written a must-read Washington Post story about an eight-year-old heroin addict, was a guest. Cooke later admitted that the child was (like Glass’s characters) imaginary.
I perked up: Maybe this week Dowd might actually leave the office! This is of course something she almost never does, unless she’s invited to Hollywood by TV network executives or to Saudi Arabia by Islamic government functionaries. But no luck. That party scene, nice a lede as it made, took place, after all, more than 20 years ago.
So although Dowd got the obligatory philosophical quote about lying journalists from her friend Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s literary editor (“Con artists get away with elaborate deception [because] most people refuse to live in a world in which cynicism is the rule,” Wieseltier tells Dowd; so now we know!), she never bothered to leave the building and take in the mood at Wieseltier’s office in the wake of the Glass movie.
This might have been at least as interesting as a two-decades old party, or Dowd’s odd, mood-of-the-country readings. A particularly jarring example, from a post-recall Oct. 12 column: “On a day when many Republicans were finding a lesson in moderation in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in California, Mr. Cheney once more chose a right-wing setting, the Heritage Foundation, to regurgitate his rigid ideology.”
Can something rigid really be regurgitated? That aside, California’s new governor and his closest (and more right-wing) Republican runner-up, Tom McClintock, together got three-quarters of the vote in a Democratic state. What kind of lesson in moderation is this?
But since she was writing about Stephen Glass, why didn’t Dowd drop by the New Republic? It’s not like she doesn’t have access. That, however, would involve walking eight blocks out the door and around the corner, so never mind. Instead, once she’s recovered from the exertion of chatting to Wieseltier — evidently on the phone — it’s time to relax by thinking about a previously viewed TV show, which has something to do with Jayson Blair, which in a Dowd column inevitably leads to how awful President Bush is.
Don’t laugh, she actually managed that one and here’s how: “The seriously creepy Jayson Blair is riding his con to fame and bucks…[his book] has the most risibly tacky title in publishing history – ‘Burning Down My Master’s House.’ I have now watched two ‘Law and Order’ episodes based on Blair. Murders were thrown in, because an information scam is not good enough for Dick Wolf’s franchise. An information scam is good enough for George Bush’s franchise, though…”
That may be the most risibly tacky segue in New York Times history, but I guess Dowd can see these odd connections because she avoids legwork almost as much as Blair did, and so has plenty of time to stare at the various hobbyhorses dancing around in her own head. I mean, you’ve got to look at something besides TV and fluorescent office lighting, right? Or maybe it’s that the combination, in excess, causes hallucinations.
Not that you can’t write a decent column without removing chin from hand or rear end from chair; I’m partial to this method myself. But unlike Dowd, I’m a freelancer whose time needs to be budgeted. What’s her excuse? Anyway, that Nov. 2 effort was actually one of Dowd’s recent best, because at least it wasn’t entirely Bush-bashing sans benefit of substantiated argument.
More typical was the Nov. 9 column, in which Dowd imagined the 1987 gangster movie “The Untouchables” as a metaphor for Bush’s Iraq policy: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun,” Dowd quoted Sean Connery’s veteran cop character instructing Elliot Ness. “He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone.”
Well, you know, that did seem to work with Al Capone, at least in the movie, and as even Dowd notes, Ness was “na’ve” and in need of advice. So how, exactly, is “The Chicago Way” (as Dowd titled that column) bad in Iraq? Maybe Bush’s Iraq policy is right and maybe it’s wrong, but for Dowd to never make a case why it’s wrong insults our intelligence. Instead she comes up with this: “The administration opened the can on these worms in Iraq. Are Americans now prepared to do what it takes?”
I’d say they are, even if she’s not. But never mind that — here comes one of Dowd’s dizzying vortexes of mixed metaphors: “The Bush crowd hurtled into Baghdad on the law of Disney: Wishing can make it so. Now they’re ensnared in the law of the jungle: the rules of engagement don’t apply with this scary cocktail of Saddam loyalists…”
Hurtling, wishing-upon-a-star, bartending…the mind reels thinking about George W. Bush, Cocktail Mixer of the Jungle. But what, really, is Dowd saying?
That’s why people get into such an “I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD!” (to quote another line from “The Untouchables”) rage about Maureen Dowd. It’s not necessarily because she’s liberal, or even that she’s an idiot; it’s that she treats readers like idiots. Here’s my favorite quote from “The Untouchables,” as long as we’re on the subject. “You know, we laugh at something because it’s funny, and we laugh at something because it’s true,” says Robert De Niro as Al Capone, just before he bashes a fellow gangster to death with a baseball bat. It’s a philosophical line; Leon Wieseltierish even. But the problem with Maureen Dowd now is that she’s neither funny nor true.