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The Redhead and the Gray Lady


Dowd interviewing First Lady Nancy Reagan.  

Dowd’s femininity is dramatized by the relentless maleness of the worlds she inhabits. She appears that much more redheaded surrounded by the blue-suited stoniness of Washington, the arid fustiness of the New York Times. When Dowd started out as a political correspondent, she had a term for women in her position: color girls. “I always liked the sort of funnier, weirder thing to write about as opposed to the official thing that would be officially more prestigious but, to me, not as interesting,” Dowd says. “So I liked being a color girl. You can deliver something unique.” The light in which she’s bathed herself is low and gray but flattering.

In Are Men Necessary?, we are taken along on a chummy sororal romp with the women who just happen to make up the female voice of what is arguably the most influential newspaper in the country—to the Crème de la Mer counter at Saks, for example, with Dowd and “my girlfriend Alessandra.” Another friend “called nearly in tears the day she won a Pulitzer: ‘Now,’ she moaned, ‘I’ll never get a date!’ ” (Kakutani won a Pulitzer in 1998.)

“We’re just ordinary friends,” Dowd says, “like you’re friends with your girlfriends, except now it’s kind of weird because we’re a lot of critics.” And in her book, Dowd asserts, “If there’s one thing men fear, it’s a woman who uses her critical faculties.”

But Dowd is more than the sum of her critical faculties; she’s an utter and unreconstructed fox. Something that nearly every person I spoke to about her mentioned, unprompted, is that men can’t resist her. I tell her this, and she pauses long enough to give her rejoinder a forties-movie-star snap: “Where are they?”

If Judith Miller represents the bad witch of the New York Times in the public imagination—self-important, suffering, wrong—then Maureen Dowd is Glenda: Technicolor, spreading mirth among the munchkins, floating around in a protective pink bubble. Obviously, Miller— “Miss Run Amok,” as she’s called herself, according to the Times—was allowed to run rampant over the rules. But the Dowd crowd enjoys its own particular brand of latitude at the paper. When Geraldo Rivera demanded a correction after Stanley asserted that he had “nudged” a rescue worker aside to make room for his camera crew after Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the Times ran an “Editors’ Note” defending her “figurative reference” only after public editor Byron Calame wrote a whole column in Rivera’s defense.

Dowd, Kakutani, and Stanley are the cool girls of the New York Times—think Heathers, but nice. Whereas Miller famously elbows away the competition, Dowd employs a different tactic. “She’s the opposite of the woman who pulls the ladder up behind her,” says Dowd’s good friend Leon Wieseltier, in an observation that was echoed by colleague after colleague. “She keeps pushing it lower.”

Still, a common newsroom perception is that Dowd’s clique gets special treatment because its members use their charm instrumentally—an occupational hazard for successful women that runs roughly proportional to their level of physical attractiveness. And then there is their extremely close proximity to Jill Abramson. “When I became managing editor, I gave a short speech: My mother told me when I was going off to summer camp, ‘You just need one friend and you’ll be okay,” says Abramson. “At work, Maureen is that one friend.”

Abramson, responsible for managing the paper’s Judith Miller coverage, is also, of course, at the center of it. “I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long,” she said when she returned my call. “I’ve just been buried under all this Judy Miller crap.”

Shortly thereafter, Dowd herself floated down and took center stage, with a remarkable Saturday column titled “Woman of Mass Destruction.” The piece began with the words “I’ve always liked Judy Miller”— a statement that seemed laughably implausible when, a few paragraphs later, Dowd described being bumped from her seat at a White House briefing by the shamelessly aggressive Miller. Dowd came off smelling suspiciously roselike: “I could only laugh.” The column ended by, for all intents and purposes, calling for Miller’s dismissal. It was a classic Heathers move, a savage put-down delivered with comic panache.

Dowd voiced what many at the Times felt—the piece cut surgically through the murky facts and mea culpas and got to the core issue. Still, some thought she’d crossed a line by going after a colleague, no matter how reviled that colleague had become, and saw the column as grandstanding.

Dowd thought hard before writing the column, delaying it from Wednesday to Saturday. “As a woman, I know that if I write about another woman, it will be perceived as a catfight,” she says. She also worried that she would seem to be carrying others’ water. Dowd says she never talked to editorial-page editor Gail Collins or publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Jill Abramson, Dowd says, advised her not to write it, fearing that it would be seen as piling on.

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