As if Susan Estrich hadn’t done enough to set back the cause of women journalists, now Maureen Dowd has weighed in with a column about the dearth of female pundits that will keep closet sexists thinking “I knew it!” until at least the next millennium. Cutely titled “Dish it Out, Ladies,” the column is an illuminating window into the Dowdian confusion between genuine insight and clever sarcasm, between tough criticism and Mean Girl attitude.
After mustering up her courage to write such a hard-hitting column—“I try to think of myself as Emma Peel in a black leather catsuit, giving a kung fu kick to any diabolical mastermind who merits it”—Dowd tries to explain why there are so few female columnists. Her reasoning is characteristically befuddled. Reason one: girls aren’t comfortable voicing strong opinions because it makes people mad at them. Why, she’s felt this discomfort herself. In 1996, six months into writing her column, Dowd tells us, she went to then-Times editor Howell Raines to try to beg off. “I was a bundle of frayed nerves. . . . As a woman, I told Howell, I wanted to be liked—not attacked.” Reason two: “Guys don’t appreciate being lectured by a woman.” It makes them nervous. It makes their testosterone boil. In sum, there aren’t more female columnists because women don’t like being columnists. Or because men don’t like women being columnists. Or both. Or neither. Whatever.
Confused yes, but Dowd wasn’t hired to think. She was hired to snark. And man, does she deliver! Dowd is the Mean Girl of the chattering class, the alpha female whose power comes from her shrewd sense of her classmates’ social limitations. No one outside a high school cafeteria has a better eye for 11th grade types: the sex-obsessed outsider-nerd (Ken Starr), the spoiled daddy’s boy (George W.), the dumb cheerleader with a permanent crush on the Big Man on Campus (Monica), and of course, the student council president, that “letter-sweater smoothie” (“adolescent-in-chief” Bill Clinton).
Now, everyone loves a good snark now and again, but what makes Dowd so successful is that she taps into people’s visceral longing to belong to the in-crowd, a longing that not only outlives 12th grade, but evidently survives well into the middle years that much of her New York Times readership is now enduring. One of her favorite tactics is inviting her audience to sneer along with her at the social outcast. “Just how much did Karl Rove hate not being one of the cool guys in the 60’s?” Dowd wrote in November. “Enough to hatch schemes to marshal the forces of darkness to take over the country?”
Years ago, in an otherwise insightful article in The Washington Monthly, Katherine Boo praised Dowd for her insights into people’s “character.” That’s exactly the wrong word. Dowd doesn’t get at anyone’s inner core; she zeroes in on superficial tics, thereby asserting her own—and by extension, her readers’—sense of social superiority. In a famous profile of George Bush Sr., Dowd described how, despite affecting a Texas persona, the 41st President would sometimes say things like “whoopsie daisy” and “by golly.” That Bush. He is sooo not cool.
The problem for Dowd is one that Mean Girls have faced since Cleopatra. Much as people are desperate for an invite to sit at her table, they also fear and hate her for her power over them. Dowd has never been especially friendly to feminists—they’re too Birkenstock geeky, I guess—but she’s not averse to playing the victim card when facing the inevitable blowback from her withering stares. “I’m often asked how I can be so ‘mean’—a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn’t get,” she complains. Well, here’s Friedman being tough on Bush: “By exploiting the emotions around 9/11, Mr. Bush took a far-right agenda on taxes, the environment and social issues—for which he had no electoral mandate—and drove it into a 9/12 world. In doing so, Mr. Bush made himself the most divisive and polarizing president in modern history.” Now here’s Dowd: “The Boy Emperor picked up the morning paper and, stunned, dropped his Juicy Juice box with the little straw attached.” Why is Dowd, and not Friedman, accused of being mean? Question asked—and answered.
In 1999, during the high school drama that was the second Clinton administration, when Dowd had ascended to Mean Girl heaven—even receiving a Pulitzer Prize for her talents—she bumped into Monica Lewinsky at a D.C. restaurant. “Do you mind if I ask you something?” Monica asked. “Why do you write such scathing articles about me?” After sorting through some possible answers, Dowd, to her credit, hesitated. “‘I don’t know,’ I shrugged lamely.” It was a rare moment of true insight for the Queen Bee, the only woman with a regular column in one of the nation’s most powerful media outlets, and—it’s painful to acknowledge—one of the most powerful women in the country.
Adolescent in Chief, indeed.