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The Redhead and the Gray Lady

How Maureen Dowd became the most dangerous columnist in America—on her own, very female terms.


Possibly, there are even more naked women at Maureen Dowd’s house today than there were when this place was JFK’s Georgetown bachelor pad in the fifties. They are lounging in the vintage posters, carved into her Deco furniture, painted in huge trompe l’oeil pastorals on the living-room wall. “My girlfriend Michi said, ‘You’ve got to paint clothes on them,’ like you know how they did at the Sistine Chapel?” says Dowd, who is drinking white wine from a goblet with a naked woman carved into its stem. “But I like them. I think they’re kind of campy.”

Michi is Michiko Kakutani, one of Dowd’s circle of extremely close female friends at the New York Times, where Dowd is, of course, the only female op-ed columnist. It’s a post she says she is “not temperamentally suited to,” despite the fact she’s been doing it for ten years and has won a Pulitzer and a passionate army of fans in the process, because Dowd doesn’t like “a lot of angst in my life,” and it is specifically her job to provoke. Her natural inclination—her fundamental drive—is, rather, to seduce. But then those two things are not entirely unrelated.

It isn’t easy being the lone female on “murderers’ row,” as the columnists’ offices in the Washington bureau are called. (And Dowd’s office just happens to be next door to her ex-boyfriend John Tierney’s. “It’s like, ‘Out of all the gin joints in all the world . . . ’ It is weird,” she says. “We share a bathroom, which I guess could have ended up happening if we’d gotten married.”) Dowd says she doesn’t mind that W. has nicknamed her “The Cobra,” and she probably kind of likes being called “the flame-haired flamethrower,” but she hates all monikers that involve knives or other sharp objects. “I have a fear of castration,” she explains, perching herself with catlike precision on the striped settee in her lacquer-red sitting room. “Not fear of being castrated but fear of castrating.” This from a woman who once referred to Al Gore as “practically lactating.”

Dowd is wearing a low-backed black sweater, black pants, and green cowboy boots. “I’m into clothes, but in a way that’s related to wanting to walk into a film noir movie,” she says. “You know, I love to go to vintage stores, but mostly it’s stuff that I don’t have anywhere to wear . . . I don’t have the life that goes with the clothes. Alessandra”—Stanley, the Times’ television critic and another of Dowd’s best friends—“says my wardrobe is very Siegfried and Roy.”

It’s good that Dowd is dressed in a neutral color today, because otherwise she would clash with the room around her. Her red hair is backlit by her collection of motion lamps—glowing squares and spheres that bubble with swimming fish and parrots and floating music notes. The red walls are lined with shelves exploding with books, old record jackets (Nancy Sinatra, Peggy Lee), family photos, various feathered ornaments and fans, a collection of tigers, another of mermaids, and a dozen or so antique martini shakers. A poster that the Times’ managing editor Jill Abramson gave her pictures a glamorous woman surrounded by a rapt circle of men above the words KEEP MUM. SHE’S NOT SO DUMB! CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES. “I have terrible taste,” says Dowd. “Ask any of my friends.” Aaron Sorkin—whom Dowd will describe to me variously as a “genius,” a “really close friend,” and a “guy I used to date”—calls her house a cross between the New York Public Library and the House of the Rising Sun.

Brains versus sex. The serious and the superficial. The battle of the sexes. This has long been the terrain of Dowd’s journalism, and it’s the explicit focus of her new book, Are Men Necessary?, 338 pages of ruminations and witticisms on matters ranging from the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings to the vestigiality of male nipples.

Though Dowd’s importance as an antagonist of the White House has never been greater, the book throws open the door to her critics’ favorite complaint: frivolousness. “When I started as a White House correspondent,” the second female in the position in the Times’ history, “there was a lot of criticism from guys saying, ‘She focuses too much on the person but not enough on policy.’ I never understood that argument at all. I just didn’t agree with the premise,” says Dowd. “Even Scotty Reston,” the storied Washington correspondent who joined the Times the day World War II began and decidedly did not groove on women in the workplace, “said that after the president got the bomb, you had to sort of focus on his judgment and who he was as a person, because that’s all you had. All the great traumatizing events of American history—Watergate, Vietnam, the Iran/contra stuff—have always been about the president’s personal demons and gremlins. So I always thought that criticism was just silly . . . as if it was a girlish thing to be focused on the person.”

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