FALUDI: Does Maureen Dowd Have an Opinion?

In the nine months since she's replaced Anna Quindlen as the only female columnist on The New York Times Op-Ed page, Maureen Dowd has taken us to Barneys to inspect Gaultier tuxedo jackets and Clinique scruffing lotions, ruminated about whether to sponge Golden Campine paint on her wall and agonized over tossing her old Flashdance album. But she's yet to take a stand on a social or political issue of any importance. She snickers at silly government hearings and rebukes public figures for dorkiness, but when it comes to moral convictions, Maureen Dowd seems at a loss. It's as if we've gone from Anna Quindlen to Anna Quibbler.Since women first broke into press punditry, they've had to play either the primly principled commentator or the wickedly frivolous disher. They could care too much to be perceived as the life of the party, like Margaret Fuller -- or they could be carelessly catty like Hedda Hopper or Eleanor (Cissy) Patterson, who took over the Washington Herald in 1930 and filled its pages with gossip. Columnists like Molly Ivins, Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Anna Quindlen have been breaking down these molds by voicing passionate beliefs -- particularly on women's rights -- with wit and impudence. But at the Times, we seem to have been returned to the days of Jennie June's shopping and gossip columns -- and, ironically, by a columnist who is perceived as too harsh by media critics.A few weeks ago, Dowd finally showed real outrage (albeit only on her own behalf) over charges by press analyst James Fallows that her cynical treatment of pols was damaging democracy. An indignant Dowd fired back that it was not a Washington journalist's job to be nice but to explore the realities of government, warts and all. But Dowd's explorations are only skin-deep. She condemns the Whitewater transactions not on the underlying (and debatable) facts but for their "cheesiness"; she finds Bob Dole's first name "bland"; she's miffed that Hillary Clinton "wore pink" to a press conference. Surface is everything. Indeed, in one of two columns on proper dressing (school uniforms -- thumbs up; casual dress at the office -- thumbs down), she insists that the "central fact of American life" is this: "Appearances matter." This must be why she's written not one but two columns on mail-order catalogues, and not one but three columns on Barneys. "Sartorial" is her favorite adjective.Dowd's decorative approach would be harmless, even fun, if she didn't bear the onus of being the Times's only female columnist. Quindlen dignified her post with strong, well-argued stands on social issues from abortion to rape to the rights of single mothers. "I'm a feminist, first and foremost," Quindlen told me. She saw her role as "a crusader for the voiceless," especially voiceless women. "Now there's a newer pundit role emerging," Quindlen said: "to illuminate the absurdity of modern life." She demurred from criticizing Dowd, whom she helped get her first Times job as a city reporter, but Quindlen said it troubles her that "I don't remember a column on abortion" by Dowd.That's because there hasn't been one. Dowd appears to have no interest in addressing women's rights -- and she seems only to write about individual women when she can make fun of them, sometimes brutal fun, as she did when alluding to "the nervous retreat of the way-overweight Shannon Faulkner." (What did she think of the misogynous Citadel's treatment of Shannon? She never says.) The woman whose surface she derides with the most regularity is Hillary Clinton. Dowd sneers at the First Lady's "latest fluffer-nutter make-over," and then, after dubbing her "Earth Mother meet Mommie Dearest," she scoffs that it's "hard to believe" that Hillary Clinton gets a lot of flak because she's a strong woman.One column does start out as if Dowd might be about to comment on women's status, albeit dubiously: "I have passed several anxious days pondering the sensibility of feminism. I feel as flustered as a dowager with an unruly poodle." But it turns out to be only a pretext for sniffing at The New Yorker, the hallowed "magazine of Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt," for "joining forces with the boorish TV star" Roseanne. Dowd's acidic style is often compared to Dorothy Parker's. But underneath Parker's caustic wit boiled political outrage, most particularly at women's lousy lot. As Christopher Hitchens, who profiled Dowd in Vanity Fair and suspects her role model is Parker, said to me, Parker feigned detachment but was driven by "strong feelings about social injustice."Maybe Dowd's true role model dates from another era -- fifties sweater girl. A friend of mine says she stopped reading Dowd's column because it was like listening to a bobby-soxer in a soda shop tossing her hair cutely as she rates the passing boys. Dowd eyes male politicians as if they were pimply teens or prospective suitors. She tells us that Bill Clinton admired her pin while "smiling dreamily" at her. She yearns for a "father figure" in a president, but Bill is just a "gifted teenager." And while "Newt is cute," Dowd sighs, he acts like "a chubby little boy with chocolate pudding smeared on his face." Only Colin Powell is man enough to make a poodle-skirted girl's heart go pitter-pat -- but, in teen beach movie fashion, he must slip away, leaving her heart broken but her virginity intact. "The graceful, hard male animal," she writes, "who did nothing overtly to dominate us yet dominated us completely, in the exact way we wanted that to happen at this moment, like a fine leopard on the veld, was gone.... 'Don't leave, Colin Powell,' I could hear myself crying from somewhere inside."After Cissy Patterson spent years penning snotty front-page editorials -- most attacking her social rival, Alice Roosevelt Longworth -- something befell her. The Depression hit, and she disguised herself as a homeless woman and applied for maids' jobs, for a story about the unemployed. The experience changed her from a socialite to a social crusader, investigating the lot of poor veterans, demanding hot lunches for hungry schoolchildren.After Dowd wrote her first column on Barneys, the store's publicist offered her a $10 gift certificate for a return visit. I'd like to make a different kind of offer: I'll pay the fare, Maureen, if you'll only go somewhere and find something you care about. Your readers will thank you for your strong words.

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