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The Redhead and the Gray Lady


With Sidney Blumenthal at the Clinton White House.  

Only slightly less remarkable than her hold over Bush the First, despite her status as perhaps the single most effective basher of Bush the Second, is the fact that Dowd managed to be the apple of two successive executive editors’ eyes: Joe Lelyveld and his replacement, Howell Raines.

Dowd once threatened to quit (“Not for the first or last time,” says Lelyveld) after an editor announced on speakerphone that a front-page story she’d written on Kitty Kelley’s biography of Nancy Reagan “wasn’t up to the Times standard.” “Some very bad judgments were made by editors, and a story that should have been played with a lot of restraint was treated seriously and put on the front page and Maureen was pressured and I didn’t think she was at fault,” says Lelyveld. Lelyveld successfully appeased her with a bouquet of red roses.

“Women know that they will, on occasion, get some extra attention because of their gender, or because they’re charming or clever or attractive,” Dowd writes in Are Men Necessary? “They are willing to accept the benefits that come when the boss is taken with them.” Her title is a play on James Thurber and E. B. White’s 1929 treatise Is Sex Necessary?, in which they assert that relations between men and women went off course when flappers started flirting with equality by smoking, drinking, working, and imagining they had “the right to be sexual.”

Dowd updates the discussion with her feelings on the contemporary “primal fear of single successful women: that the aroma of male power is an aphrodisiac for women, but the perfume of female power is a turnoff for men.” Her solution, or at least part of it, is old school: “I always subscribed to the Carole Lombard philosophy: ‘I live by a man’s code, designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.’ ” One could replace “yet at the same time” with “consequently.”

In her book, Dowd has it both ways: She objects to the way men reduce women to chickish stereotypes, but then she can’t help but engage in a little bit of it herself. It can be frustrating to hear her carve up the world along gender lines, to watch Dowd dress various human traits in pink or blue. “Maureen does believe that there are two teams: that there are the boys and there are the girls,” says Wieseltier. Dowd told me that “Condi and Hillary don’t throw like girls,” for example. “Hillary was willing to kind of debilitate the integrity of feminism to promote her own and her husband’s interests, and that’s a very manly thing to do.” Really? Men are inherently more self-interested than women? What about Martha Stewart? (What about Judith Miller?)

Dowd recently received a minor spanking at the hands of Barbara Ehrenreich after Dowd wrote in her March 13 column about the dearth of female op-ed writers and how she tried to get out of the job herself after six months: “As a woman, I told Howell, I wanted to be liked—not attacked.” In response, Ehrenreich told the New York Observer, “Some of us love fights. I think that’s complete bullshit.”

“I put Barbara’s comment in my book because I know it isn’t the same for everyone,” says Dowd. “I was just saying how it felt for me.” Dowd is not a partisan. She was as merciless with Clinton as she was with Bush, and she is as skeptical of feminism as she is of communism. As Wieseltier puts it, “She insists that the human logic of events is their primary logic. She’s never distracted by the political or economic explanation.”

Dowd is assumed by most people to be a Democrat. But a certain brand of lefty will never forgive her for her coverage of the Clinton impeachment, the work that won her a Pulitzer. “A lot of people thought, Well, Maureen Dowd should be a liberal columnist and sticking up for our side,” says Mike McCurry. “They thought that she was aiding and abetting Ken Starr and the Republican hate machine, and in reality she was part of this kind of Irish-Catholic mafia that included Chris Matthews and Mike Kelly that thought Clinton’s sins were beyond the pale.”

Dowd was the youngest of five children raised by her father, Mike, who was a D.C. police inspector, and her mother, Peggy, who died this past July and was the love of Dowd’s life so far. Dowd’s mentor, former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb, calls Peggy Dowd “the source, the fountain of Maureen’s humor and her Irish sensibilities and her intellectual take.” In her last years, her mother’s eyesight began to fail. “One day my phone rang, it was 7:30 in the morning, and my mother said, ‘Hello, operator, I’ve lost my sight and I need to be connected to a hospital.’ She meant to press zero but she had pressed redial,” Dowd says. “So I ran over and we get to the doctor’s building and she says, ‘I’m never . . . gonna . . . see . . . ’ And I thought she was going to say ‘your face,’ or something, but she goes, ‘Tim Russert’s face again.’ I went, Tim Russert?! What about me? It was hilarious. But I loved that about her. I’m the one at the newspaper, but she’s the real news junkie.”

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