Dowd’s Gravitas

NYT opinion columnist pulls the “earnest” card

Maureen Dowd’s column in today’s New York Times is a serious, even earnest, take on Colin Powell’s late-in-the-game endorsement of Obama. Instead of Sunday’s “Madame Defarge sharpening her knitting needles at the guillotine” (payback for George W.’s “Reign of Error”), we get the following earnest statement:

In a gratifying “have you no sense of decency, Sir and Madam?” moment, Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and talked about Khan, and the unseemly ways John McCain and Palin have been polarizing the country to try to get elected. It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo.

Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan was a young Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq; during his Meet the Press appearance, Powell described opening a New Yorker featuring a photo of Khan’s mother pressing her forehead to his grave, which was inscribed with the crescent and star to denote his Muslim faith. Powell posed the question: “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?”

The column, titled “Moved by a Crescent,” refers to Powell’s reaction to the photo, and reads nothing like a typical Maureen Dowd piece. No sarcasm, no satire, no name-calling—just an entire column dedicated with unwavering attention (no grab bag elements here) to why Powell’s comments were noteworthy.

Which is weird. MoDowd has built her career on a style-before-substance model—clever cadences, clever syntax choices, clever nicknames. She is read and discussed entirely on the basis of her wit, which is ample enough to allow her indulgences that would not be granted to other columnists. (Clark Hoyt, the NYT’s public editor, writing earlier this election cycle about her treatment of Hillary Clinton in a column about the charges of media sexism, reached the conclusion: “I do not think another one could have used Dowd’s language.”)

So why such earnestness? It certainly had us considering the possibilities. Could it be that Dowd, after several manifestations of style, temporarily dove off the deep end, chanting “Forget voice”? Maybe she got bored and decided to mimic Bob Herbert. Maybe the opinion desk accidentally ran Bob Herbert’s column with Dowd’s byline on it. Maybe she just couldn’t come up with a good nickname for Colin Powell. Oh, the scenarios.

It’s also possible that Dowd decided to take the serious route because Powell’s comments broke through the media spin cycle to make a point—that the word “Muslim” has been erased and replaced by another word that looks exactly like it but connotes something very different—too important to be obfuscated by her usual semantic baubles.

If that last scenario is the case, does it hold special weight because it comes from such a clever-tricks writer? Some readers of her column thought so: “Refreshing and surprising to read a serious comment here makes an even greater impact from Ms. Dowd.”

I would tend to agree. Still, while Powell’s endorsement made the news for a day, it was also largely seen as nominal. His remarks about Muslim-American patriotism were poignant, but not new. There were certainly other moments that might have merited a similar sort of wake up and let’s be serious about this one tone. It’s odd that it was this particular moment, thirteen days before the election, that caught Dowd’s eye as worthy of a column noticeable for its gravitas. It also underscores how wide-ranging a platform national opinion columnists like Dowd have (it’s currently first on’s “Most e-mailed” list). Given that, we can only speculate on the other ways she could have benched the snappy talk and straightforwardly discussed the questionable rhetoric tossed around during the horse race.

In December of 2006, Dowd wrote a column discussing Obama’s middle name, saying, “Republican wizards have whipped up nasty soufflés with far less tasty ingredients than that.” Fair enough. And then style-over-substance takes over: “But there hadn’t been much focus on the unfortunate coincidence of the senator from the city known as the Hog Butcher to the World having the same name as the Butcher of Baghdad until a Republican operative dropped the H-bomb on “Hardball” this week.”

Alliteration: check. Obfuscating semantic baubles: check. Dowd’s commentary (early on, when Obama’s candidacy seemed a long(er) shot) was valid enough: No one was really mentioning that Obama’s middle name was Hussein. But it’s hard to imagine a more convoluted or tortured formulation of that thought.

Granted, Dowd doesn’t play by journalists’—or even other columnists’—rules. But looking back at some of her choices, one thing is clear: sometimes, even for Dowd and her patented brand of brashness, substance over style is the way to go.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.