It boggles the mind, but New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd—who’s been on the case for the past 21 years and won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for commentary—claims her lofty perch on the Op-Ed page occasionally causes panic attacks.
Not just in the politicians she lacerates—but also in her.
“I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes in terror,” Dowd told me while promoting her latest book, The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics, a collection of her reported pieces and opinion columns dating back to the early 1990s as well as several freshly-written book-worthy essays. “This job is such a huge responsibility, and I think, why do I have it?”
That’s a question that probably also occurs to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—frequent objects of Dowd’s pitiless, skewering gaze—to say nothing of presidents Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama. (Dowd won her Pulitzer for a series of columns on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.)
Indeed, Bush 43’s vice president, Dick Cheney, once told an interviewer concerning a just-published Dowd column, “I thought Maureen was out to lunch, as she frequently is,” and when his wife Lynne chimed in, “That was off the record,” the Veep corrected her, “No it wasn’t.”
As for Obama, he has little use for Dowd, and the White House pointedly excludes her from the off-the-record briefings that the president occasionally holds with important Washington pundits to explain his thinking behind various policy choices.
Former top Obama aide David Axelrod revealed in his 2015 memoir Believer that when Dowd interviewed the then-senator aboard his 2008 campaign plane, “Obama proceeded to blister her for a previous column she had written. No one got under Barack’s skin more than Maureen… He was patronizing and disrespectful…
“After that awkward encounter,” Axelrod continued, “she seemed to take particular delight in psychoanalyzing Barack and belittling him in print, which only deepened his contempt… ‘Why are you friends with her?’ he would demand after Maureen sent one of her acid darts his way.”
Dowd’s new book, her third, is an often-alarming examination of Trump and the Clintons—plus a meditation on the Bush dynasty and what she describes as her “screwball comedy” relationship with the old man—and her close encounters with each over the decades.
The youngest of five children of a police inspector-father and a witty news junkie-mother, with whom Dowd was exceedingly close until her death at age 97, Dowd attended Catholic schools in Washington, D.C., and began her career as an editorial assistant in 1974 at the now-defunct Washington Star; she later worked as staff writer for Time magazine before joining the Times as a metro reporter in 1983, eventually becoming the paper’s White House correspondent.
In her book, she finds the reality television real estate mogul an oddly charming sexist, megalomaniac and narcissist, ill-informed yet supremely confident. She finds the former senator and secretary of state a public-spirited idealist, meticulously steeped in policy details, yet damaged by a discordant and self-defeating penchant for secrecy and greed.
The blustery Trump, at least in one respect—his thoroughgoing ignorance of the issues—is not unique, she says. While policy-oriented politicians like the late New York governor Mario Cuomo, the son of Italian immigrants, always wondered if he was worthy of the presidency, Dowd said, “people like Trump and Sarah Palin and Dubya and [former vice president Dan] Quayle don’t agonize at all. They’re just like, ‘Yeah! I’m ready!’ And they don’t study at all.”
With Trump—like Bush 43, Quayle and Palin—“you’d think that if somehow you fell into clover and you’re on your party’s ticket, you would get a tutor and study 12 hours a day. But they never do. Palin didn’t know where Iraq was, and Dubya didn’t know about Medicare, and Trump doesn’t know anything. If you get rewarded for a lack of something, you don’t think of fixing it, and it would never have occurred to any of them to think about worthiness.”
Dowd has dissected Trump plenty in her column, and her book includes not only essays in anguished support of the often outrageous nominee by her Republican older siblings, Kevin and Peggy, but also a merciless takedown of Trump by Dowd’s friend Rita Beamish, who covered the first Bush White House for the Associated Press, and writes that the GOP standard bearer is “indefensible and dangerous.” (Kevin Dowd, Maureen said, begged to have his essay killed after Trump attacked the Gold Star Kahn family, but the manuscript was already at the printing press.)
“A lot of my friends won’t read my interviews with Trump because they’re like, ‘You shouldn’t be talking to him!’ and giving him space to say anything,” Dowd confided. “Rita has a very finely tuned moral compass, so I told her, ‘OK, give it your best shot.’ Rita is a righteous voice.”
And doesn’t Maureen Dowd have a finely tuned moral compass?
“I don’t know,” she dodged.
Yet she clearly does. When it comes to Trump vs. Clinton, Dowd is an equal opportunity faultfinder. “I know it’s hard for Times readers to understand this, but I don’t do an ideological column. My columns are not from the left or the right. I don’t choose a team and then support it all the way.”
She added: “There is plenty to reproach Trump for, and I do. But that doesn’t mean that Hillary is above reproach. I think it’s really bad for democracy—this idea that she should get a pass, that no one should say anything critical about her because the alternative is ‘the abyss,’ as she said at a fundraiser. I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude.”
Dowd remains censorious of Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote to authorize military action in Iraq—a vote the Democratic nominee has admitted was a mistake. “Hillary is Miss Homework, but she didn’t do her homework,” Dowd said. “She didn’t read the National Intelligence Estimate”—the nonpartisan document that cast doubt on whether Saddam Hussein indeed possessed weapons of mass destruction, as the Bush White House claimed—“and that’s something she does have to answer for.”
Dowd steadfastly refuses to say who she prefers as Leader of the Free World, not even as a citizen. “I don’t ever say who I’m voting for.”
Dowd’s victims (as they might consider themselves) would no doubt be surprised to learn that she considers herself the sort of bundle of insecurities that she regularly diagnoses in them as part of her role as “the establishment’s resident shrink,” as former Politico executive Jim VandeHei called her in his recent review of her book in Dowd’s paper.
“That’s funny,” she said about the “shrink” description. “Once, at a movie screening of [Oliver Stone’s] Nixon, Bob Woodward was talking about how he was like a shrink to Nixon like I was to Clinton, and said, ‘Every president gets the psychoanalyst he deserves.’”
Dowd, with her working-class Irish-Catholic roots, resists being tagged as a member of the Washington establishment. “It doesn’t sound that attractive to be called the ‘establishment’ person or the ‘elite’ person. I guess I am because I have an amazing perch at the New York Times. But I hope I try to keep a sort of rebellious spirit going.”
Dowd, who grew up in a household that revered John F. Kennedy, said she makes it a point never to befriend the politicians she writes about, even Bush 41, with whom she has enjoyed free and frank epistolary relationship (chronicled for the first time in The Year of Voting Dangerously.)
“People always ask me, ‘Do you like this politician? Do you dislike him?’ I don’t think of them that way,” Dowd said. “I’m not trying to get to dinner parties and being friends with them. I think checks and balances are important—more so when Dick Cheney was trying to take them away—and I’m not trying to cozy up to them.”
Still, Dowd concedes that there are certain politicians, like Arizona Sen. John McCain and “Poppy,” as she tends to call Bush the elder in print, using his preppy nickname, who are difficult to resist.
“When a politician has so much charm, you really feel drawn to them, and it was hard not to feel that way about John McCain and the first President Bush. But I take my professional responsibilities seriously. He would write me a lot of letters agonizing about the fact that I was being hard on his son.”
And when it comes to agonizing, Dowd can empathize.
“It’s really stressful,” she said about her column, which last year went from twice to once a week on Saturdays online and Sundays in the paper when Dowd returned to long-form journalism as a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.
“When I first got the column [in 1995, after a dozen years in the Times Washington bureau], my skin was breaking out and my hair was falling out and I was curled up on the floor of my house. I remember one night after I finished writing I stopped by Popeye’s to get some fried chicken, and I went to put on Clearasil and looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘Wow. This is not how [fellow Times columnist] William Safire spends his nights!’”
After six months of such agony, Dowd went to then-editorial page editor Howell Raines and suggested that maybe she wasn’t temperamentally suited to be writing a column for the Times. “He said, ‘Ok, you can go back and be a Metro reporter,’ and I said, ‘Ok, I’ll try it a little longer.”
Dowd explained: “It’s kind of like a yin-yang thing. I’m a ‘yin’ personality. I’m really shy. But the dilemma is that I have a ‘yang’ job designed to grab attention.”
Dowd—a striking redhead with a deceptively kittenish demeanor, and the subject of multiple magazine profiles over the years—is one of the most recognizable figures in the journalism biz, and she’s been practically living on cable and network television this past week as part of seven-city national book tour that will last until after the Nov. 8 election.
Yet she vehemently, if not persuasively, denies that she’s a celebrity.
“No, I don’t think so,” Dowd insisted, pointing out that in order to be famous in this country, one has to be a television fixture. “I’m usually not on TV. I’m terrible and it’s terrifying.”
She recalled an early appearance on NBC at the 2004 Republican convention to tout her first book Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk. “I was on with Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert and I absolutely began hyperventilating. My family doctor—who was anti-drugs, and wouldn’t prescribe any kind of anti-depressants—called me and said, ‘I think you need to come in and get some Xanax or something, because you are fatootsed”—the Yiddish expression for “driven to distraction.”
Another time, one of her girlfriends—possibly the Times’ Alessandra Stanley, Dowd recalls—gave her a beta blocker to calm her down before a radio appearance. “Suddenly I said to the host, ‘Where am I? And who am I?’ I couldn’t even remember who I was.”
A subsequent appearance on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman “was the most terrifying thing ever,” Dowd recalled. “He was really sweet but I couldn’t even remember what I said afterwards. I was just happy that words were coming out, but probably not coming out in any good order.”
I’ve known Dowd for more than three decades, since the days when I worked for The Washington Post and she was a feature writer for The Star, and she told me she never imagined herself in those days as a famous figure of Powertown.
She laughed when I asked about her future—if she had any idea what would happen first, getting married or writing her memoir.
“Neither, I guess,” said Dowd, who is single like her late friend Mary McGrory, the legendary newspaper columnist for whom Dowd regularly helped out at McGrory’s cocktail parties, “serving Teddy Kennedy his daiquiris.”
“I would like to get married. Would you put a want ad at the end of your piece?” joked Dowd, who in years past has been linked to such luminaries as Michael Douglas, Aaron Sorkin and even Howell Raines. “You know I don’t discuss my personal life.”
And the memoir?
“One time, I was talking to my mom about a friend of mine who was going to write a memoir, and my mom said, ‘Of whom?’”
Dowd added: “I’ve always thought mystery was an interesting quality, and I’m going to try to keep as much of that as I can.”