September 14, 2003

Maureen Dowd: The Jimmy Olson of the New York Times

Mo Dowd in "The Return of Jimmy Olson"

In Gunsmoke and Mirrors the Time's eternal schoolgirl intern with an attitude, Maureen Dowd, muses:

This is how bad things are for George W. Bush: He's back in a dead heat with Al Gore.

(And this is how bad things are for Al Gore: He's back in a dead heat with George W. Bush.)

One terrorist attack, two wars, three tax cuts, four months of guerrilla mayhem in Iraq, five silly colors on a terror alert chart, nine nattering Democratic candidates, 10 Iraqi cops killed by Americans, $87 billion in Pentagon illusions, a gazillion boastful Osama tapes, zero Saddam and zilch W.M.D.

[”And a partridge in a pear tree!”]
have left America split evenly between the president and former vice president.

"More than two and a half years after the 2000 election and we are back where we started," marveled John Zogby, who conducted the poll.

Yes, we can just hear, like the chiming of a crystal bell, the tone of Zogby's awed marvel in the quote above. Perhaps he started off with a "Can you believe it, Maureen, can you believe it? Who'd a thought it?" -- which Ms. Dowd cut in order to give herself a little stretching room for the long chain of flat quips and lame plays on words that have more and more become the weak reeds she is forced to rely on twice a week or so.(“I’ll call this one ‘Gunsmoke and Mirrors’,” thinks La Dowd, “and end it with the stunning zinger ‘His gunsmoke has gone up in smoke.’ -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”)

We feel, at times, sorry for the Times. Here it is, stuck with having one its prime column slots filled up with recycled tripe week after week simply because there's no editor or publisher strong enough to get rid of the Dowd two-fer. The publisher's core dinner party guests simply wouldn't stand for it. The nattering nabobs of NOW wouldn't stand for it. The Democrats on the Upper West Side wouldn't stand for it. Nope, the Times is stuck with her for the duration.

The decline of Dowd into dotage has been painful to watch. At first, many years ago, she could easily match such comic giants as Bill Maher quip for quip. And she had the added advantage, unlike Maher, of actually being an attractive person. But the years and the unrelenting stress of -- can you imagine? -- 1200 words a week for six figures a year has taken a toll even Botox cannot burnish. And while this toll can be hidden behind the flattering picture that has been consciously not updated for years, it cannot be hidden from those readers in search of something, anything, that signals Ms. Dowd is on the cutting edge of anything other than the shared spleen of the disenfranchised.

Today's effort is, alas, not yet the spark on the horizon that signals brilliance rising beyond.

We note that she has taken refuge in that elephants' graveyard of columniists -- "What would happen if the election were held today?" In Dowd's column it seems to be the case that she is saying that if the election were held today it would be the last election of 2000 with Gore and Bush in a dead heat. There's just no heat in this dead idea, however, since the real election -- as one never tires of pointing out -- will be held over a year from now. The whole hook on which the column is, literally, hung is about as irrelevant to today as some black and white scene from the newsroom of the Daily Planet in the original Superman TV series.

Indeed, if her work over the last few years is any indication, Ms. Dowd, instead of being in line for yet another Pulitzer, seems to be angling to become the new Jimmy Olson, Cub Reporter, in the Times newsroom. (With optional Prada accessory kit.) Like Jimmy, her overall tone has turned breezy and bootless. It is as if, in the very recent past, she discovered that her loyal readers and dinner-party companions liked her best when she just rolled out the Bash-Bush Welcome Wagon and started handing out a party favor per paragraph. A few choice examples can come, these days, from just one column since they are all the same column:

"The Bush administration thought it could use scientific superiority to impose its will on alien tribal cultures. But we're spending hundreds of billions subduing two backward countries without subduing them."
Just because the rebuilding of Iraq doesn't proceed with the rapidity of a shopping spree at Barney's is disappointing to this unseasoned reporter.
"Secretary Pangloss at Defense and Wolfie the Naif are terminally enchanted by their own descriptions of the world. They know how to use their minds, but it's not clear they know how to use their eyes."
Let's face it, this is cub reporter prose of the first water. It would be more at home in some free San Francisco weekly wedged between the ads for breast enlargements and paid companions in search of others who share their love of goats. Old-time Times hands have to shudder when sentences like this cross the copy desk. Unless, as appears to be the case, Ms. Dowd has been given a "Get out of editing free" card by Pinch."Mocking all our high-priced, know-nothing intelligence, Osama is back in the studio making his rock videos.

The cadaverous caveman has gone more primitive to avoid electronic detection, operating via notes passed by couriers.

We haven't forgotten all Mr. Bush's bullhorn, dead-or-alive pledges." Without even going into the willful boneheadedness evinced by this passage, we would just like to note, and pass on, forever pass on, the leaden strokes of "rock videos" (Get it?), the lilting phrase "cadaverous caveman" (repeat six times swiftly), and the last self-referential insertion of 'bullhorn." As far as we know, President Bush used a bullhorn on only one occasion, where Ms. Dowd cranks one up twice a week.

Would it be too much to hope for a single instance in the future when a Dowd column would have some content other than bile passed so many times through the writer's CPU that it's no more than thin sour gruel?

If only the election for the worst and most jejune of columnists were held tomorrow. Dowd would be in a dead heat with Jimmy Olson. If he had a column.

Posted by Van der Leun at September 14, 2003 3:22 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Let's face it, this is cub reporter prose of the first water. It would be more at home in some free San Francisco weekly wedged between the ads for breast enlargements and paid companions in search of others who share their love of goats."

Well said, but a little insulting to us goats.

Wonder if Dowdska impermeability to replacement will contine if the Times' circulation declines or is pinched or, um, Punched.

Posted by: RLS at September 15, 2003 6:35 PM