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Lady Liberties

For "panting puppy" Bill Clinton, "helpless victim" Ken Starr, and even our entire "soft-porn nation," Maureen Dowd has one message: She's angry with us! Really, really angry!

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Sex, or the opposite of sex, has made Maureen Dowd the New York Times op-ed-page poster girl.

She has flown past the pretense of perjury and indicted the president not just for his indiscretions but, really, for the nature of his sexuality -- self-indulgent and weak. He is a "panting puppy"; "he has made wickedness seem pathetic"; if he honestly described his encounters, "he would be laughed out of any locker room in the country"; he is, she says of his sexual classiness, no Jack Kennedy. She pauses along the way to heap scorn upon Kenneth Starr's sexuality, too. "He had become," she wrote, "the helpless victim of his cravings for ecstasy . . . gaining pleasure from repetition: " 'breasts,' 'genitalia,' 'inserted,' 'stain.' "

Dowd has risen above most of the other caustic voices in the impeachment cacophony because where others clearly have a political agenda, Dowd's views in her twice-weekly 700-word column seem born of a purer rage. She truly seems to have it in for unfaithful men, Hollywood, the media, and all other cornerstones of "trivial and craven and tawdry" morality -- the "soft-porn nation," as she recently put it.

Still, it did not necessarily seem like hypocrisy when she began to be linked with the actor Michael Douglas -- a kind of Bill Clinton's Bill Clinton who, the tabloids report, has undergone sexaholic therapy. Rather, it seemed like part of the logical background of her wrath. Perhaps she is drawn to such men (at the same time, Douglas appears to be involved with ABC newscaster Elizabeth Vargas). That would certainly explain her anger -- it's at her own women-who-love-too-much weakness. Maybe.

One of the hallmarks of her column, however, is its impersonal nature. She never lets us see the private Maureen Dowd or the domestic Dowd or the doubting Dowd. Although the column is relentlessly first-person, we aren't offered even the vaguest outlines of her daily life or the roots of her feelings. Unlike Clinton, who communicates with sentiment and vulnerability, Dowd is all armor and aggression.

Dowd, of course, took the "woman's spot" on the op-ed page, replacing the hugely popular Anna Quindlen, whose stock-in-trade was emotional and domestic nuance. But where Quindlen reached for a majestic acceptance and understanding of the pain and ambiguities of public as well as private life, Dowd is fixated on the essential depravity of man-kind. Quindlen was a caregiver; Dowd is an open wound.

In addition to her un-Times-like venom, the other un-Times-like feature of her column is that there is almost no reporting -- often, no new information at all. She doesn't look for stories, doesn't much confer with insiders, doesn't hit the streets. It's just 'tude. She is derisive, mocking, hyperbolic, bitchy. She is more in the style of a cable-network talking head than she is in the grand Times tradition of James Reston (whose antecedent is Walter Lippman); indeed, she more rightly belongs in the company of Westbrook Pegler and the other vitriolic Hearst columnists than in the world of Times worthies.

Even as a stylist, on which basis Dowd developed her reputation at the Times, she has tended to put aside her eye for the killer detail and become more of a speechifier, even a proselytizer, her chief devices being staccato repetitions, dripping sarcasm, and symbolic straw men. ("It makes perfect sense that Geraldo could be the NBC Nightly News anchor for the millennium. It makes perfect sense that 60 Minutes could hire Murphy Brown as a correspondent. It makes perfect sense that Bill Clinton could go on the board of DreamWorks.") Her style is really radio.

But it works. She is the Times' new voice. She is the Times' avenging heroine. They really, really love her.

Columns on the Times op-ed page have historically had a divided purpose: On the one hand, the mission is to have eminent journalists bring thoughtfulness and reason to the issues of the day; on the other, it's to reward successful service to the corporation (ergo, the page is something of a graveyard).

The new generation of columnists -- along with Dowd, there is Thomas Friedman representing the international perspective, Frank Rich the cultural side, Bob Herbert the underclass point of view -- is supposed to maintain that tradition of augustness and reward, while duking it out in the significantly more competitive world of today's punditry.

Although Dowd may not be succeeding in the august department, there is a 'You go, girl' squad cheering the way she has brought the Times some street cred with her buzz-producing pugnaciousness. Part of her appeal within the Times is precisely that she is not in the classic, sober, analytic, elitist, Ivy League (Wasp or Jewish) tradition. She is in that other newspaper tradition: urban, Irish, working-class. The Times, while distinguished by the former, has always been as much the latter (Harvard snot versus street reporter).

Arriving at the metro desk after the Washington Star folded (and after a brief stint at Time), Dowd almost immediately stood out in what is probably the most difficult, politically fraught, and competitive part of the paper (the highest ratio of reporters to bylines).

The Times often makes an internal distinction between reporters whose gift is reporting -- that is, bird-dogging the news -- and reporters who can turn a nice phrase and clever analogy (which are then repeated in Times Talk, the in-house newsletter). As the writer-reporter with the nicest phrases and cleverest analogies, Dowd excelled in the eighties era of a softer, more feature-heavy front page.

In 1986, she was rewarded with an assignment upgrade to the Washington bureau. In Washington, she starred both as a writer -- becoming one of the signature journalists of the Reagan and Bush years (she is often credited with helping foster the Bush goofy-preppy-endearing persona; Dowd and Bush are said to keep up a chummy correspondence) -- and as a Times insider. Howell Raines, then the Washington-bureau chief, now the head of the editorial page and in contention to be the paper's top editor, became her mentor and closest confidant, and, by most reports, she his. "She cracks Howell up and Howell cracks her up," says a senior Timesman. Many people at the Times believe that at least for a period they were romantically involved -- but part of the Dowd mystique is that no one seems to know for sure. Just as important, she became friendly with the publisher's son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., then in the midst of his short climb to the top.

In Times legend, she crossed the Rubicon when she broke a front-page story on Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan biography, revealing that Nancy Reagan consulted astrologers. In Kremlinesque Times by-play, the fact that the story had been passed to the less-experienced weekend editors instead of being evaluated by the more stringent weekday editors got her into trouble. Unreported, unsubstantiated allegations about the First Lady of the United States on the front page of the Times . . . went the tenor of the public rebuke. In a memorable facedown over the issue, Dowd threatened to quit. "At that point, institutionally, at the highest levels, the decision was made that she was one of the paper's major assets," says a Times insider. After that, the job of the organization became to protect her and to keep her happy. Oft noted among the less valued staff, with envy and wonder, is that she has gotten away with more of an editorial voice in news reports than perhaps any other Times reporter before her.

In 1995, upon the departure of Anna Quindlen from the op-ed page, Dowd's "Liberties" column debuted.

The fierce Dowd cult at the paper -- she is held in awe by management and rank and file -- seems to be inspired not so much by the column itself as by her status as a real reporter (Frank Rich, for instance, who came from Harvard and started as the protégé of culture czar Arthur Gelb, is not particularly popular among the rank and file) and her virtuoso success within the Times organization. Also, the boys like her: She's the good-looking girl who belonged to the literary magazine in high school, sardonically commenting upon the cool guys. She is smart, surprisingly shy, funny, available, but not very available. She's Daria.

There is a kind of postmodern self-referentialism to her. She exists in a closed circle, protecting herself from a cruel world, a phony world. She gets material for her columns by reading the New York Times, watching television, and reading other people's columns. She almost never appears on television and would not be interviewed for this article ("Ms. Dowd," said her assistant, without irony, "does not speak to the press"). Her sources are other journalists; her kitchen cabinet includes the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier (quoted so often he can seem like a co-writer of the column); Rosalyn Carter's former press spokesman Paul Costello; Times reporter Alessandra Stanley, and Howell Raines. Oh, and her mother. "She checks everything with her mother," says a Washington-bureau veteran. "But beyond her circle of friends and her mother, she doesn't really speak to anyone else."

Except, recently, Douglas. The issue of the 47-year-old Dowd's relationships fascinates many at the Times. That she doesn't really do relationships -- at least not openly -- is what's fascinating. At the Washington Star (twenty years ago), she went out with John Tierney, now also at the Times. That ended badly, when, as she claimed in a pseudonymously published magazine piece, she found a little black dress not her own.

When she showed up with Michael Douglas at Ben and Sally's (i.e., Bradlee and Quinn's) twentieth-anniversary party, it was notable not so much for the celebrity factor as it was for the fact that Dowd had a date. Instead of lingering at the fringes of the crowd and huddling with her friends, as she is famous for doing, she was openly mingling and introducing Douglas to colleagues. "She was," says a Times friend who was at the party, "a different Maureen."

Since then, there's been speculation that it's Douglas's influence that has gotten her to include Starr and the Republicans within her circle of ire (Dowd's attack on Starr was so vicious that Starr's wife publicly rose to defend his honor); and, it's been suggested, Douglas has fostered, through Dowd, a lessening of hysteria on Raines's editorial page toward Clinton. If true, we might be in for it when Douglas fails to hide someone's little black dress.

Op-ed columns are judged, at least at the Times, on significantly more than just writing skills. It is perfectly possible within the Times to understand that someone can write boring or erratic or hysterical columns and still be thought of as an important columnist. Stature as a Times columnist has more to do with which way the wind is blowing at the Times. During the era of Reston, Tom Wicker, and Cyrus Sulzberger, what was valued was important gray-haired men who could break the news of what the world's other important gray-haired men were thinking. In some sense, the exact opposite is at a premium now. Like Dowd, Arthur Jr., who controls and runs the paper (and who is far more involved in editorial matters than his father was), does not see himself as an insider. Like Dowd, he sees glamorous insiders as trivial, craven, and tawdry, focusing his anger (like Dowd, he's quick to attack: "That's guy's an asshole," "That guy's a jerk") on the glitzy, the elite, the hoity-toity, the Hamptons, the Vineyard. The current of opinion, some say, runs from Sulzberger to Raines to Dowd. They are the new voice of the Times.

And they're not going to take it anymore.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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