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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Dowdifying Dowd

Back from her multi-month vacation hiatus.*

"I mean, I like to exercise... (I'm) psychopathic about it."
-- Maureen Dowd

PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST. Like many people, I suppose, I used to read Maureen Dowd's columns and think, "What the hell is she talking about?" She makes references to current events, but the landscape is always rearranged in ways that make it oddly remote from reality, as if she were living in some alternate universe. At that point, I could have taken the wise course followed by thousands of other readers and simply shrugged, turned on my heel, and walked away. But there was something about her that gnawed at me, as if, contrary to superficial appearances, there really was a sentient human being lurking inside her delusionary world of mangled quotes and malicious mixed metaphors.

Then I read the following passage in one of her columns from January 2005:

In all those great Tracy/Hepburn movies more than a half-century ago, it was the snap and crackle of a romance between equals that was so exciting. Moviemakers these days seem far more interested in the soothing aura of romances between unequals.

In James Brooks's "Spanglish," Adam Sandler, as a Los Angeles chef, falls for his hot Mexican maid. The maid, who cleans up after Mr. Sandler without being able to speak English, is presented as the ideal woman. The wife, played by Téa Leoni, is repellent: a jangly, yakking, overachieving, overexercised, unfaithful, shallow she-monster who has just lost her job with a commercial design firm. Picture Faye Dunaway in "Network" if she'd had to stay home, or Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" without the charm.

The same attraction of unequals animated Richard Curtis's "Love Actually," a 2003 holiday hit. The witty and sophisticated British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, falls for the chubby girl who wheels the tea and scones into his office. A businessman married to the substantial Emma Thompson falls for his sultry secretary. A writer falls for his maid, who speaks only Portuguese.

(I wonder if the trend in making maids who don't speak English heroines is related to the trend of guys who like to watch Kelly Ripa in the morning with the sound turned off?)

Art is imitating life, turning women who seek equality into selfish narcissists and objects of rejection, rather than affection.

I realized, of course, that the whole column was really about herself , and then in an instant I realized that all her columns are really about herself. The distorted politcal topology she delineates day after day is , in fact, an accurate rendition of the "Universe of One" inhabited by a very lonely, insecure, and needy lady named Maureen Dowd.

If you'll think about this notion for a moment, it makes such great sense that it seems to explain everything that is otherwise unexplainable in her whacked-out commentary. She doesn't much care about using leader dots (that's ellipses for the snobbish among you) to transform the meaning of quotes into terms that suit her because she is accurately quoting all that she really hears or listens to. She still does it even though her journalistic sins in this regard have been formally recognized:

Dowd's critics, especially James Taranto, have often accused her of editing quotes and adding ellipses so as to change the quotes' intended meanings; the word "dowdify" has been coined to describe this habit. The word has been used as parlance among conservative journalists and bloggers to describe any wilful misinterpretation of a quote.

But she cares no more than Mrs. Malaprop about the ignominy of having such a pattern of blunders named for her. Why? She regards herself as a wit, and she believes that wit exists not to illuminate the topic but the speaker. She is always performing in a drawing room peopled by those whose admiration she desires. Every word of her writing reflects this perspective. She affects a chatty, breezy style reminiscent of cocktail party gossip as her preferred voice for condemning outrageous global-scale crimes against humanity. She is deaf to the dissonance of a catty little girl voice issuing from the throne of the star chamber. She cannot hear herself because she is always merely seeing herself talking brilliantly. Amd that's what she wants from us. When she refers to Rumsfeld as "Rummy" she practically insists that we see her scowling and gesticulating in her couture dress while sipping a glass of chic white wine. The real purpose of calling him Rummy is to convey her superiority to him, and the reason for talking about national and international policy is the same. She is showing us exactly where she wishes to be placed in the scheme of things, which is always, invariably, at the center of attention.

It gets easy to understand Maureen Dowd's columns when you have internalized this model of her universe. Whatever she seems to be writing about, she is always talking about something that is obsessing or troubling her in her own life at the moment. If you doubt it, take a look at her recent columns about her favorite bete-noire George W. Bush. These are important because they mark her return after a mysterious "hiatus" from her job at the New York Times, which began at least as early as the first week of June:

Where's MoDo?...  Have you noticed any of President Bush's critics at the New York Times or Air America Radio being shipped off to a prison camp lately? Me, neither, although the official explanation for Maureen Dowd's current hiatus is still pending....

Yet in her very first column after returning to work, she wrote:

It's amazing that the White House does not have the elementary shrewdness to have Mr. Bush simply walk down the driveway and hear the woman out, or invite her in for a cup of tea. But W., who has spent nearly 20 percent of his presidency at his ranch, is burrowed into his five-week vacation and two-hour daily workouts. He may be in great shape, but Iraq sure isn't.

It's worth stressing the fact that her little razor slash about a five-week absence from the White House comes hard on the heels of her own (minimum) eight-week absence from her duties at the Times. When we dial in the "Universe of One" effect, we can see that Maureen is clearly troubled about some aspect of her own vacation hiatus. But what? We can obtain a clue here by examining the always fertile realm of Dowdian equivalencies. For example, she chooses to equate the President's physical "shape" with the plight, the nationwide "shape," of Iraq. She may regard this as wit, but for those who are truly concerned with the suffering of U.S. troops and Iraqis in wartime, the jest falls a bit flat. It's flippant, and because it calls more attention to a turn of phrase than to the elements it manipulates, it's more self-aggrandizing of the writer than demonstrative of anything like truth. The Iraq War is being pressed into service as a punchline, nothing else.

But Dowd has somehow equated them in her own mind. It must be that there is something cosmically important about the term "great shape." This is confirmed by another of her equivalencies, seen in the phrase "five week vacation and two-hour daily workouts." The thoughtful reader must conclude that Dowd has the subject of exercise on her mind.

Can we possibly prove such a theory? Yes. Turning to her latest column, (titled My Private Idaho, and note the possessive pronoun) we read [emphases mine]:

W. vacationed so hard in Texas he got bushed. He needed a vacation from his vacation.

The most rested president in American history headed West yesterday to get away from his Western getaway - and the mushrooming Crawford Woodstock - and spend a couple of days at the Tamarack Resort in the rural Idaho mountains.

"I'm kind of hangin' loose, as they say," he told reporters.

As The Financial Times noted, Mr. Bush is acting positively French in his love of le loafing, with 339 days at his ranch since he took office - nearly a year out of his five. Most Americans, on the other hand, take fewer vacations than anyone else in the developed world (even the Japanese), averaging only 13 to 16 days off a year.

W. didn't go alone, of course. Just as he took his beloved feather pillow on the road during his 2000 campaign, now he takes his beloved bike. An Air Force One steward tenderly unloaded W.'s $3,000 Trek Fuel mountain bike when they landed in Boise.

Gas is guzzling toward $3 a gallon. U.S. troop casualties in Iraq are at their highest levels since the invasion. As Donald Rumsfeld conceded yesterday, "The lethality, however, is up." Afghanistan's getting more dangerous, too. The defense secretary says he's raising troop levels in both places for coming elections.

So our overextended troops must prepare for more forced rotations, while the president hangs loose.

I mean, I like to exercise, but W. is psychopathic about it. He interviewed one potential Supreme Court nominee, Harvie Wilkinson III, by asking him how much he exercised. Last winter, Mr. Bush was obsessed with his love handles, telling people he was determined to get rid of seven pounds.

Shouldn't the president worry more about body armor than body fat?

I think we can now begin to put the pieces together. Beginning in January, Maureen decided she was fed up with not being able to find a boyfriend who was her social superior (or at least her equal). Returning to that column, we can now read it with the following emphases:

In all those great Tracy/Hepburn movies more than a half-century ago, it was the snap and crackle of a romance between equals that was so exciting. Moviemakers these days seem far more interested in the soothing aura of romances between unequals.

In James Brooks's "Spanglish," Adam Sandler, as a Los Angeles chef, falls for his hot Mexican maid. The maid, who cleans up after Mr. Sandler without being able to speak English, is presented as the ideal woman. The wife, played by Téa Leoni, is repellent: a jangly, yakking, overachieving, overexercised, unfaithful, shallow she-monster who has just lost her job with a commercial design firm. Picture Faye Dunaway in "Network" if she'd had to stay home, or Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" without the charm.

The same attraction of unequals animated Richard Curtis's "Love Actually," a 2003 holiday hit. The witty and sophisticated British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, falls for the chubby girl who wheels the tea and scones into his office. A businessman married to the substantial Emma Thompson falls for his sultry secretary. A writer falls for his maid, who speaks only Portuguese.

(I wonder if the trend in making maids who don't speak English heroines is related to the trend of guys who like to watch Kelly Ripa in the morning with the sound turned off?)

Art is imitating life, turning women who seek equality into selfish narcissists and objects of rejection, rather than affection.

It would seem that her affair with a very powerful and well connected married man had just gone south. She thought he viewed her as an equal -- and definitely more acceptable than the "jangly.. overexercised" wife -- but he dumped her for a mere chick, probably a famous but callow Kelly Ripa type. Interestingly enough, the exercise motif attaches to both rivals, including Kelly:

Kelly Ripa gained an amazing 80 pounds in her recent pregnancy and was back to her svelte physique in weeks.

And so Maureen finally decided that the only way to get her lover back, or to find an equally powerful replacement, was to get her aging body into peak condition. She hired a personal trainer and even went to the extreme length of taking a leave of absence from the New York Times, the better to commit herself to getting into "great shape."

Sadly, though, where the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. Either she lacked the discipline to stick to her regimen, or her pecs and glutes and abdominals were too far gone. At any rate, she "got bushed" and finally took "a vacation from (her) vacation." Nothing has improved. She feels guilty. All this time, she should have been caring "more for body armor than body fat." And she's wasted all those months on what turned out to be no more than  "le loafing." Worse, the old boyfriend, whose heart she thought might grow fonder in her absence, refused to meet with her; he didn't even have the common decency to "simply walk down the driveway and hear (her) out, or invite her in for a cup of tea."

That's what's so supremely galling about George W. Bush. All those supremely powerful men are the same. Everything comes easily to them, and the women they should be consorting with are simply used and -- as soon as they make any demands -- contemptuously discarded as "selfish narcissists and objects of rejection." Nothing works. If you make a name for yourself by being fabulously witty about torture and roadside bombs, they dismiss you as a bitch who talks too much and leave you for the first bimbo with a great ass "who speaks only Portuguese." Then, if you stoop to catering to their basest instincts by slaving in the gym to develop a body to die for, they completely forget about you while you're away. Life sucks. It's kind of like a long bloody war of attrition in the middle east where you just can't win and you can't seem to walk away, and all the time the men who are responsible for making you so miserable just lie and smile and play with their toys and get away with everything.

It's hard to know what to say. Maureen, we're sorry things aren't working out for you. Maybe Rummy really will leave his wife one day. You can never tell.

*To be perfectly honest, this photo isn't completely 100 percent accurate. But it's true in certain terms. Think of it as a photographic, uh, ellipsis.







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