Coffee Tawk With Maureen Dowd

Chatting with the star 'NYT' columnist about Judy Miller, Bush's nannies, and blogs

Coffee Tawk With Maureen Dowd
Illustration By Doug Potter

In case you haven't heard, Maureen Dowd is upset, and she's coming to Austin. The New York Times columnist brings her supple, snarky wit to the LBJ auditorium this Wednesday at 6pm to discuss the current state of journalism, but her tight schedule doesn't permit any nacho time. "I lived on nachos for 20 years," said the Pulitzer Prize winner, "before a nutritionist explained to me that they weren't a major food group." The Chronicle was lucky enough to wax with Ms. Dowd earlier this week about the incestuous nature of insider reporting, Judy "Miss Run Amok" Miller, and the nanny presidency.

Austin Chronicle: What's the bigger issue in journalism today – blogs, and their sometimes amateurish quality, or the cozy relationships some mainstream media reporters cultivate with their sources, as seen in the Judith Miller fiasco?

Maureen Dowd: Journalism is an imperfect art. I always think of it as liquid history; we're trying to write for history, but it's like that quiz show where you try to put as many things in your supermarket basket as you can in 30 seconds. Blogs have made my life difficult, because with everyone trying to have an opinion, it's hard to think of anything original to say when you have to wait three days for your column to be published. It's like now we're in a whole nation of opinion writers, so what makes yours special? You have to work even harder. It used to be in the old days, (The New Republic editor) Walter Lippman and (longtime Times writer) James Reston would write from some Olympian height, and everyone would wait to have the word handed down, but not anymore. I always tease my assistants, I say, "You know, when James Reston would give his assistants the column after it was finished, they'd say [fawning voice] 'Thank you Mr. Reston!'" I don't know. There can be problems in every aspect of journalism. The bloggers have done some great investigative work, and some hilarious work – I love Gawker, they do some hilarious things and some very original columns. It's hard sometimes, because blogs also have a lot of misinformation. I'm never quite sure when you're using it as research, you never quite know how verified it is. It's like the Wild West. But that's what makes it exciting. My general opinion of all this is that the form may change, but we shouldn't be threatened because the function doesn't change. And the function is to – I can never think of a less corny way to say this – to serve as part of the checks and balances. The Bush administration has does everything they can to kill any checks and balances, but, thank goodness, we've managed to survive. So it really doesn't matter what the technology is.

AC: After 9/11 and after Katrina, the media went into shortlived soul searching – do you think Scooter Libby's indictment will make some in the media question their chatty relationship with their sources?

MD: I always tend to think of it as antagonistic, like it's our job to watch them, not to socialize with them. I don't want to socialize with politicians, or be friends with them. I feel like it's my job to say, "Are they having a good day, or a bad day?," doing a good job, or a bad job, and why. I'm the reader's advocate, I'm not there to hang with them. The White House and the government have so many people paid by the taxpayers to put their spin on stories. If they're good press secretaries, they just add the spin; in the case of this White House, there's been a lot more heinous activity that the taxpayers have paid for in terms of actual deceit. They don't need newspaper people to help them spin. They've got plenty of people who are already doing that.

AC: Do you think what we're seeing right now is the cumulative effect of all this deceit?

MD: I think things that start with a lie don't work out well. I think that's a general truism in life. Things that start with a big lie don't tend to work out well. And the Iraq war started out with a big lie, that it was necessary for our security, that al Qaeda was connected to Saddam, that Saddam was connected to 9/11, and that Saddam had the potential for nuclear weapons. And that's not why they wanted to go into Iraq. I think whenever you don't trust the American people to make life-and-death decisions, if you have to fool them into something, that's not going to lead to anything good. My objection to the war wasn't even the war itself, it was the case for war. They had to make the case; they never did that. Inside the White House they didn't make the case; there was no debate, they suppressed all the information that contradicted their ideological opinions, and [the case] wasn't made to the country.

AC: So I guess we are seeing that right now.

MD: Yeah, all the chickens are coming home to roost, or whatever cliché you want to use about it. Even Republicans admiringly say they constructed a remarkable alternative reality. It was an alternative reality; it wasn't based in facts, it was based in faith and ideology. And wishful thinking. Only in Disney can wishes make it so.

AC: I think back to the article in The New York Times Magazine where a White House source lambasted the "reality based community."

MD: I love that quote. I use it all the time. That may have been their pinnacle, if this is their nadir. It's like some kind of Potemkin village reality they had built. I think they could only do that after 9/11, because the public was bonded to the President in trust and fear, and so that's the loathsome thing about, that they took advantage of all of that American fear and insecurity and loyalty, to sell their old ideological plan.

AC: The White House was known for their spin and message control, but lately it's been leaking like a sinking ship. Why?

MD: It's funny – I was wondering if the ethics course Harriet Miers is teaching is really a way to clamp down, to get them not to talk about the Scooter thing. I don't know if she's teaching it, but she's arranging for people to get ethics training. It's just weird. OK, you take the country to war based on lies, you smear an FBI agent, you miss Katrina because you're just too busy bicycling, or worrying about your clothes if you're Brownie. And now they're going to get into ethics training? There just has to be some other agenda there. So it may be a way to close it down.

AC: It doesn't make sense. It's like paying Brownie to investigate FEMA's horrible response.

MD: How can he still be on the payroll? If this were a Judy Holliday movie, she'd go to a shareholder's meeting and have a revolt. How can this guy still be getting paid by the taxpayers?

AC: Well those Nordstrom shirts aren't cheap. But back to Miers, while she was certainly underqualified, did you sense any sexism in the attacks on her nomination?

MD: I really think Bush is the one that really hurt women there. Because he put up someone who was not qualified in anything, except apple polishing and fawning over him. He's so insulated and infantilized by all these yes men and yes women and nannies around him, like Karen Hughes and Condi Rice, that he didn't even realize that just sucking up to him does not make one qualified for the Supreme Court. And he seemed to be stunned by that, which was really a funny moment. But in the meantime it really hurt women, because she was not qualified – the Senate had to send back her questions, because they were so lamely answered, and she didn't have any expertise in constitutional law. She was not the kind of first-rate legal scholar you want on the Supreme Court. Then it was like, OK, she has to get out of the way, and another white guy has to come in. So I think the total effect was bad, but I blame Bush for that. It was kind of a setup for her. I feel sorry for her, but Bush set her up, and women up, to take the fall because he wanted to put one of his governesses in, without the proper qualifications. The same could be said of Karen Hughes. The most difficult problem we have in the world today is trying to understand the Muslims and getting them to understand us, and when you send someone who doesn't know anything about that part of the world, just because they're a loyalist to you, I don't think that is a wise decision. It doesn't make her look good, it doesn't improve our relations, and it doesn't make women look good. When she goes to Saudi Arabia, and she doesn't know what you could learn just from reading [Dowd's book] Bushworld [laughs], that Saudi Arabian women hate one thing more than not driving, and that's Americans criticizing their men for not letting them drive. I just think this doesn't make women look good when he puts nannies in jobs they're not suited for.

AC: There is a lot of nannying going on in the White House.

MD: I know, it's the British side of the Bushes! [laughs]

AC: He is surrounded by these powerful women, but they are in these sycophantic positions, like Rice or Hughes.

MD: It's funny, because the first part of the Bush administration was almost cartoonishly masculine, and now he just seems to be surrounded by nannies. I think that men, and probably women too, in any field, can get infantilized, and get bad advice if they only surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear. That was the story about this al Qaeda guy who told the CIA briefers what they wanted to hear, because that was what Cheney wanted to hear.

AC: In making the case for war ...

MD: I think that leads you down the wrong path if you surround yourself with people who are telling you what you want to hear rather than what you should hear. People who are insecure at some level are more prone to want those people around them ... It's weird, because the first term was all this swaggering, macho, militaristic bellicose. And now he just seems to be surrounded by women and wondering alone. It's a really weird change in tone.

AC: Yours was the first major piece critical of Judith Miller in the Times op-ed page. The paper was widely criticized for being scooped on their own story. Were you withholding judgment until the Times published their own investigation?

MD: The case was incredibly confusing, and since Fitzgerald was so tight-lipped, it was really hard to tell what was going on and it still is. I still don't understand Novak's role. And I still don't fully understand Judy's. There's been some debate about it, that the Times perhaps should have set up a separate mechanism to report on themselves at the very beginning. Because they had her legal defense and their journalistic side all tied up, all of a piece. But it was just a real hard, unique, and confusing case, and it still is. [Editor's note: At press time, it was announced that Miller was parting ways with the Times.]

AC: How do you think it's affected the Times? Is it a worse blow that the Jayson Blair scandal?

MD: No. I think everybody piles on the Times, and we pile on ourselves. That's because we have to be Caesar's wife, we have to be purer that pure. But I think the readers appreciate the fact that we agonize when something goes wrong, that we have this public trust, and we've worked through it. I think we're coming out on the other side of it. Again, you just have to try and put out the best paper you can every day, that's all you can do. It's the most fun you can have for a dollar, that's what I always say. [laughs] Or what is it, five on Sundays?

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