But after Miller wrote her own account of the Plame situation, Dowd went ahead. “I realized I had to, because for the last five years, I’ve written a lot about WMD and the scamming and hype by the administration, and in a way, Judy was a phantom player in this.”
In response to the column, Miller e-mailed a seven-point rebuttal, beginning with the words, “I like you, too.”
Both on the page and in person, Dowd doesn’t let anyone forget she’s a woman. When she appeared on Letterman to promote her first book, Bushworld, in 2004, she wore a little black dress with spaghetti straps, and with her red hair fluffed in an Old Hollywood wave, Dowd had a certain Jessica Rabbit ambience. “You look tremendous, and I guess you must be going somewhere after this because nobody gets this nicely dressed for me,” Letterman told her. “I did,” she breathed. “I’ve been in love with you forever.”
“It’s almost impossible not to be a little bit in love with Maureen,” says Washington reporter Todd Purdum. “She’s bewitching. Maureen is . . . a sorceress.”
Purdum thinks there’s “a practical part of Maureen that knows that. She’s a very different personality than Mary McGrory,” the Washington Star columnist at whose parties Dowd and George Stephanopoulos used to serve drinks when they were in their twenties. “But she’s not dissimilar in this way: She bends a lot of people to her will with this amazing combo of smarts and charm. I’ve done things for Maureen like carried bags and fixing her computer in the middle of the night that I wouldn’t have done for anyone else.”
Dowd acknowledges her debt to McGrory in Are Men Necessary?: “I tried to learn from her,” she writes. “The way she acted helpless like a barracuda.”
It is a testament to Dowd’s seductiveness that even after the blistering Bushworld, the first President Bush still e-mails her to this day. “I went with Maureen to a party at this fancy townhouse for Bush Senior after he had published a book of his letters,” remembers Abramson. “We got there, and his eyes lit up when he saw her come in. He shooed the two of us into a little room; he said, ‘Bar will kill me if she sees you here!’ It’s like an illicit friendship he has with her.”
As eviscerating as Dowd can be on the page, in person she seldom fails to charm. She bristles, though, at the suggestion that she’s used her feminine wiles to get information. “I used to get furious about that,” she says. “I thought that was such an insult, because I never thought I did. Sally Quinn had that famous quote that if a senator was telling her something and he had his hand on her ass, she’d just let it stay there until he told her. That was not my school. My school was I wanted to be charming but I didn’t want to flirt with a source. Like I had a really good relationship with Marlin Fitzwater, Bush One’s press secretary, and I think I would tease him sometimes . . . There was a roast I had to do about him once, and I said he was catnip for women or something. But I just felt that it would be unprofessional to flirt with him.”
“Well, yes, she was very flirtatious,” says Fitzwater. “She was just an interesting person to be around on a personal basis.”
“I’ve always had this great flirtatious relationship with her, so it’s hard to get mad at her for any length of time,” says former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry. “I’d call and yell at her, and I’d always end up laughing and saying, ‘Well, this isn’t gonna go anywhere.’ ”
Dowd’s technique is described by one former colleague as “mischievous destabilization.” She once walked up to Newt Gingrich’s spokesman, Tony Blankley, while he was in the middle of a speech and flipped his tie over to see the label. “But the flirtation word I would take exception with, because it implies something inappropriate,” says Blankley.
I met Dowd for the first time when she attended a reading I was giving at a local bookstore. I was standing at a lectern answering a question about the breakdown of the women’s movement when something caught my eye—something red. I tried to say something smart. I tried to think of something funny. I knew that the flame-haired flamethrower was in my midst.
When it was over, she came up, handed me my book to sign, and said her first words to me: “Just make it out ‘to my idol.’ ”