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The Redhead and the Gray Lady

Dowd with mother Peggy.  

Dowd concedes that when a female reporter is playful, “that’s probably indistinguishable to a guy from flirting.” She thinks about it for a minute. “But in my head, it isn’t flirting.” She laughs. “It’s so funny because I would get so angry about a lot of this stuff over the years, like when people would—as they constantly do—put me in catfights with other women. Like when Alessandra was hired, for instance, and Howell was the Washington bureau chief.” Howell Raines went on to become the executive editor of the Times and was pushed out two years ago in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. “He called me in and said, ‘Now, I don’t want you to be jealous that Alessandra is coming.’ I just blew up and said, ‘I happened to be the one who recommended her and she’s my best friend and I’m really offended!’ But it’s hopeless. Some guys are going to like to do that.”

But wasn’t it slightly more complicated than that? Wasn’t Howell Raines, at one point, Dowd’s boyfriend?

“He was my boss,” she says very firmly. Then she cracks up.

It is worth keeping in mind that less than 30 years ago, in April 1977, when Dowd was still a metro reporter at the now-defunct Washington Star, the female staff members of the New York Times were at a turning point in a class-action suit against their employer for systematic discrimination against women in hiring practices and compensation. According to Nan Robertson’s book The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times, publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s baffled response was, “Why can’t a private company have men around if it wants to?” That same year, Anna Quindlen was hired and went on to become the third woman ever to have a regular Times op-ed column. In one famous column, Quindlen expressed disgust with the Times when the paper ran a story naming the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of raping her, replete with blind quotes about the alleged victim’s bar-hopping “wild streak.” Quindlen’s urban-earth-mother feminism fit with the cultural climate of her moment and served as a vital foil for the Times’ still lagging grasp of gender equity.

It was Quindlen who hired Dowd as a Times metro reporter in 1983, and Quindlen suggested Dowd as her replacement when she retired from writing her column in 1995. “I’ve known a number of really first-rate writers who couldn’t make it as columnists, because to be a columnist you have to create a persona,” says Quindlen. “The rap on Maureen as a reporter was that there was too much persona in the prose. Columnists are probably the only people readers talk about like they’re people: Strangers say to me, ‘Did you read Maureen yesterday?’ As though Maureen’s my friend—which is true—and Maureen’s their friend—which is not true.”

If Dowd fears castrating, she also seems frequently unable to resist it.

Dowd initially conceived of her column as partly about politics, partly about men and women—in Dowd’s voice, which sounds a little like the actress Carol Kane’s, this comes out “min and womin”—and partly about Hollywood. “Anna was focused on women’s issues,” says Dowd. “When I got the column, I didn’t want to do women’s issues per se, but I did want to look at things through a woman’s eyes. When I started doing humor pieces, Michael Kinsley”—the former editorial-page editor of the L.A. Times, now a columnist for the Washington Post—“and Bill Safire separately took me aside and said don’t do that: You’re going to be perceived as a girl. And usually I’ll take any advice. But in that case, I just knew that was wrong for me.”

“I was completely wrong,” says Kinsley. “I thought that she would get pegged as a girl and not taken seriously, but she in fact sort of reinvented the column as a form and made it . . . Well, I’m not going to continue this girl metaphor, because I’m just going to get into trouble. It’s basically the technique of a novel: She wants to be Edith Wharton, and she is.”

Dowd thinks of her columns as “political cartoons.” In her hands, W. is a spoiled brat in cowboy boots; the Democrats are the “mommy party.” If Dowd fears castrating, she also seems frequently unable to resist it. Clinton behaved “like a teenage girl trying to protect her virginity”; “he would be laughed out of any locker room in the country.” (Clinton returned fire at the 1998 White House correspondents’ dinner when he read a list of mock headlines, including “ ‘Buddy Got What He Deserved,’ by Maureen Dowd.” Buddy was his neutered chocolate Lab.)

As in all caricatures, some traits are minimized, others are amplified and possibly distorted, but the fundamental essence is usually captured so precisely that Dowd’s images often win a permanent place in the culture. She’s retold the last three presidencies as long-running sitcoms, where the joke is always on the man in charge. In a way, she’s created her own reality—Dowdworld—and we just live in it.