Back in November 1997, in a column about the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, Maureen Dowd wrote the following:
Even with George Bush’s sometimes scattered style and Colin Powell’s inhibition about the use of force, the Bush-Baker-Cheney-Powell-Schwarzkopf team still gave the impression of command.
Perhaps because it’s the Democratic domestic “mommy party” or perhaps because this White House has so openly explored its feelings with facilitators and spiritualists, the Clinton-Albright-Cohen-Berger team has a less fearsome style.
I fret that toothy Tony Blair is no Iron Lady. I fret about the president running around in chi-chi cobalt blue shirts, hanging out with Hanks, Geffen and Katzenberg—grubbing for money, and possibly post-Presidential employment, in Tinseltown, while Saddam’s labs are working overtime.
I get no rush of confidence watching Bill Cohen. For bellicose moments, I would prefer a hard-boiled type with a $5 flatcut to a soulful Shelley in tapered blue shirts with effete white collars and styled hair.
This column, most people would agree, has not held up well. Ultimately, what it gets most wrong is the idea that, as a journalist, you can tell anything very meaningful about our leaders by focusing on these types of stylistic details.
This same journalistic approach dominated the subsequent 2000 presidential campaign, in which many in the press focused more on the candidates’ personal qualities—the fabled “who would you rather have a beer with” test—than on their positions or qualifications. Dowd herself relentlessly mocked Al Gore’s wardrobe and personal style, portraying him as a pompous phony who didn’t know his own mind.
The result? We elected George W. Bush, whose foreign policy team, we were initially told, would restore “an impression of command,” but whose presidency is now widely agreed to have been a disaster, on foreign policy above all.
Since then, many leading political journalists have acknowledged the flaws in this approach, and apologized for the press’s overall performance in 2000. But on the evidence of her writing lately, Dowd appears unrepentant. Today, in a column arguing that Hillary Clinton staying in the race will toughen up Barack Obama, Dowd writes:
[Obama’s] strenuous and inadvertently hilarious efforts to woo working-class folk in Pennsylvania have only made him seem more effete. Keeping his tie firmly in place, he genteelly sipped his pint of Yuengling beer at Sharky’s sports café in Latrobe and bowled badly in Altoona .
At the Wilbur chocolate shop in Litiz Monday, he spent most of his time skittering away from chocolate goodies, as though he were a starlet obsessing on a svelte waistline.
He looked even more concerned when he was offered a chocolate cake with white chocolate frosting. “Oh man,” he said. “That’s too decadent for me.”
And so on. This idea of Obama as effete is a developing meme for Dowd. Just last month she told us:
Obama’s multiculturalism is a selling point with many Democrats. But his impassioned egghead advisers have made his campaign seem not only out of his control, but effete and vaguely foreign—the same unflattering light that doomed Michael Dukakis and John Kerry.
(One of the advisers Dowd was referring to, by the way, was Samantha Power, who in 1993 was among the first to report from the field on the massacres in Srebrenica. Some egghead.)
The examples of effete Dems may come from 1988 and 2004, but in terms of Dowd’s approach to politics, there’s no doubt we’re back in 2000. Dowd writes as if the press’s acknowledged failures that year, and to a lesser extent in 2004, never happened. As if the idea that a candidate’s ability to project a superficial manliness tells us anything about his ability to be a good president. Indeed, reading Dowd is akin to entering a parallel universe in which this style-over-substance approach to thinking about politics hadn’t been entirely discredited by the last seven and a half years.
In a way, it’s hard to blame Dowd. Not only does she have little interest in, or knowledge of, the details of policy, a la Paul Krugman, but she also hasn’t shown an ability to come up with broader, more thoughtful political or social insights, like David Brooks or Thomas Friedman. The “does-the-candidate-bowl-and-drink-beer-in-a-masculine-seeming-way?” approach to political punditry is her one move—never mind that it’s been shown, as clearly as possible, to be facile and destructive. But really, what does that matter when you’ve got a New York Times column to write?
Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.