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Maureen Dowd Fills Page Hall at New York State Writers Institute Reading

By Greta Petry (September 17, 2004)

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, Sept. 14.

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 ovation.

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,” she said.

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 hippie.”

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.”