Maureen Dowd Fills Page Hall at
New York State Writers Institute Reading
By Greta Petry (September 17,
In a rare public appearance for the New York
State Writers Institute, Pulitzer Prize-winning
New York Times columnist
Maureen Dowd packed Page Hall Tuesday evening,
Known for her scathingly funny columns that
skewered Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky
dalliance, Dowd has been merciless in her criticisms
of the Bush administration.
Dowd departed from the format of reading from
her previously published columns to spend most
of the evening taking questions from a receptive
audience. Every seat was taken, and many people
were turned away at the door. At the end of
the evening, the audience gave Dowd a standing
In classic Dowd style, the writer characterized
the race for President as a contest to see which
candidate can act more macho. “The rituals of
masculinity are writ large” in this race, she
said. The Republican National Convention was
like watching “The Magnificent Seven,” with
gun slinging macho types like Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and even “Poppy”
Bush riding into town. Dowd said that John Kerry’s
error has been to “act as if he has to be as
macho as Bush. He has let Bush define him.”
Noting this is nothing new in politics, Dowd
recalled her amazement when college students
were suddenly flocking to Ronald Reagan, who
was perpetually shown wearing a cowboy hat and
on horseback, while Walter Mondale was putting
out a cookbook.
“Everything regarding masculinity and femininity
is important in the race,” the columnist said.
Each word used by the GOP spin doctors to define
Kerry, such as “waffling” or “wavering” creates
an image attacking his masculinity. “The whole
thing is like a Cialis ad,” she said.
Dowd said American troops are in a “heart-breaking
situation.” She said there are only 15,000 American
soldiers in Afghanistan (far fewer than the
size of the police force in New York City) to
deal with a resurgent Taliban and given the
job of catching Osama bin Laden. Yet there are
150,000 soldiers in Iraq, set in a complicated
thicket of tribal and religious factions. “They
can’t take the hill, because the hill is a mosque,”
Dowd said voting in this election is important
because “everything in the whole country is
up for grabs,” and young voters need to be involved.
She said the “genius” of the Republicans has
been that by focusing on rituals of masculinity
in the Western world and playing on post-9/11
fears, they are succeeding in making the case
that Bush is better able to protect the country
“even though they are suppressing the information
we need to protect ourselves.” The problem,
as she sees it, is that “we went to war on false,
trumped up evidence,” and we “never went after
the people who (on 9/11) hit the buildings.”
Dowd said Kerry has not been able to get traction
on this issue, and the Democrats have played
into the GOP’s strategy of casting them as timid.
“Americans like political killers,” she said,
because they win. Yet she was surprised that
Kerry wasn’t ready for the attacks by third
parties, since this has been standard Bush strategy
since the Willie Horton ad, and the attacks
on John McCain’s war record.
Saying that Colin Powell was used “as a fig
leaf” by the Bush administration to seek U.N.
support with faulty evidence of weapons of mass
destruction, she said he is unlikely to stay
with the administration if Bush is reelected.
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have succeeded
in making out Powell to be some kind of “sandal-wearing
Dowd signed copies of her book Bushworld:
Enter at Your Own Risk (August 2004),
a selection of her columns in book form. Dowd
joined The New York Times
as a reporter in October 1983. In 1986 she was
assigned to the Washington bureau, where she
has covered four presidential campaigns. In
1995 she became a columnist for the paper’s
editorial page, filling the vacancy left by
Anna Quindlen. Dowd won the Pulitzer Prize in
1999 for her “distinguished commentary” for
her coverage of the Clinton sex scandals.
Dowd also talked about how she writes her column.
She said she rarely asks questions, and spends
a lot of time observing.
“I used to let people talk and talk and hang
themselves. Now I’m the one who can’t shut up,”
she said after being introduced by New York
State Writers Institute Director Donald Faulkner.
Dowd joked that she “begged the Times
to let me come here and cover the Legislature,
but I think they didn’t think I was a serious
enough reporter.” She envisions the Times
Op-Ed page as a “great dinner party,” attended
by guests of many differing opinions.
Asked about the process by which she writes,
Dowd said, “I wait until the last minute…” and
added that writing “is a blur of fear and late
deadlines.” Once she procrastinated so late
that she could hear the circulation trucks pulling
up to the printing plant, “which is really frightening
if you haven’t started your column.”
And while she tries to appear “very brave in
print,” Dowd said the reality is that since
9/11 any writer who challenges the President
is cast as unpatriotic.
“I don’t even walk in front of the White House
any more,’’ Dowd quipped. “I feel like Cheney
is going to pop out and make a citizen’s arrest.”