DATE August 5, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Maureen Dowd discusses her career and newest book,
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Maureen Dowd is one of the
most controversial newspaper political columnists in the country. To her
fans, her columns are scathingly funny, but not to her critics. In the
National Review, she was criticized for taking gratuitous swipes at President
Bush and for substituting rhetorical disdain for rational criticism. She has
a new book, a collection of her columns from The New York Times, called
"Bushworld." Here's an example of what makes Dowd so controversial. In her
column Adventures in an Alternate Reality dated April 25th, 2004, she wrote,
quote, "In Bushworld, they struggle to keep church and state separate in Iraq,
even as they increasingly merge the two in America. In Bushworld, we're
making progress in the war on terror by fighting a war that creates
Dowd became a columnist for The New York Times in 1995 after reporting on the
White House during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. She won a
Pulitzer Prize for her columns on the Clinton impeachment. Dowd told me she
doesn't see herself as representing the liberal or the conservative point of
view. She says the media have constructed the red state/blue state divide,
and she doesn't want to play into that.
Ms. MAUREEN DOWD (Author): Well, I think, you know, that's sort of why I
stopped doing TV, too. When--I used to do TV at the beginning of my career
and then producers would start calling and saying, `Well, tell me which side
you're on.' And I would say, `Well, you know, I'm not on one side or
the'--They would say, `Because we want to match you up with someone on the
opposite side.' And I would say, `Well, I'm not really on one side or the
other, I have thoughts on both sides.' Then they'd say, `Well, then we can't
use you.' And I didn't want to go on either because it just seemed sort of
antithetical to creativity and original thinking and critical thinking to just
always be defending one side or the other, even if it was against logic or
against, you know, what seemed right.
GROSS: Give me an example of you that you have on each side, so to speak--you
know, something that would be considered too contradictory for the type of
show that you're talking about to deal with.
Ms. DOWD: Well, for instance, with Clinton, people often--I sometimes see
references to me being hard on Clinton during impeachment. And I guess I was
hard in the sense of tweaking him, but I was defending him. And I tried to
point out in my columns that the idea of, you know, impeaching a politician
for having a girlfriend in Washington was completely risible. I mean, my
brothers were pages on Capitol Hill at the time when Prescott Bush, this
president's grandfather, was a senator and JFK and Nixon were senators, and
Lyndon Johnson. And none of these people were involved in their stories, but
my brothers were full of stories about senators, you know, would get drunk and
they'd get their foot caught in the brass spittoons on the Senate floor and my
brothers would have to help them off the floor, or their wives would be
calling the cloakroom saying, `If you don't get my husband to the phone--I
know he's with that woman--I'm gonna come down there and, you know, come onto
the floor.' And my brother would have to race around with the sergeant of
arms and look in the Capitol hideaways.
So, as a Washington native, I've always thought, you know, politics and sex is
inextricably intertwined. So, in a way, in my backhanded way, I was trying to
defend Clinton and say this is absurd, that Ken Starr's report was grounds for
divorce, perhaps, but not impeachment. So that's one example, I think. Is
GROSS: No, no, right. And so you feel like you were critical of Clinton, but
you were even more critical of the people trying to impeach him?
Ms. DOWD: Yes. I mean, I hardly ever get ideas that I love, you know. And
it's hard because there's such a Tower of Babel now in blogs and cable. You
can barely think of an idea before someone else might get the same idea. I
have to Google everything now because in the couple of hours before my column
goes in, somebody might have said that and it will look like I'm repeating it
or it'll be old. And, you know, there's just so much opinion out there now in
the ether that, you know, it's just hard to say anything fresh and original.
But one idea that I really liked was when I did a column about--without naming
names, talking about he was obsessed with sex and he couldn't, you know, wait
to hear about Monica and this and this and this. And then, at the end, it
turned out to be Ken Starr rather than Clinton. Maybe you had to read it...
GROSS: No, no. But say you wanted to Google...
Ms. DOWD: ...to appreciate it, but...
GROSS: Say you wanted to Google that to see if anybody else had said it
first. I mean...
Ms. DOWD: Well, nobody did that 'cause that was sort of a specific--they
couldn't do that idea. I was talking more about, like, if you used a line,
for instance, about Bush or the Bush people crying Wolfowitz. By the time you
might get that in a column--The other day during the convention, I was
thinking that Kerry, in the infamous space suit picture, looked like Woody
Allen when he played the sperm in "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex."
But before I could even write that in a column, Tucker Carlson said it on
"Crossfire" and then John Tierney wrote it in his New York Times column. So I
just mean it's hard to have originality with so many opinions coming at you
all the time.
GROSS: Do you feel like your column is any more or less valuable now that
punditry seems to have taken over the world of politics?
Ms. DOWD: Well, you know, it's funny because I drove down to Leesburg once
to have lunch with Russell Baker, and he told me he spent eight hours a
week on his columns, four hours on each column. And I was trying to figure
out what I do, and I am thinking about my column all the time and agonizing
about it. And I would say it's not as--for me, I do try and report, but the
work is more psychologically draining because you're trying to think of
GROSS: You know, you describe yourself as not fitting into the red box or
blue box categories and wanting to just, you know, have an independent
opinion. On the other hand, you're a favorite target of criticism for a lot
of conservative pundits. And I wonder if you follow that, if you Google
yourself and read what people are saying about you and if any of that ever
affects what you write.
Ms. DOWD: Well, it's funny. A couple years ago--or it must be more than a
couple, maybe three or four, when I first heard of Googling, and there was
this young guy in my office, James Bennett, who is our brilliant, brilliant
Jerusalem correspondent. And he said, `Let me teach you how to use Google.'
And so we sat down at his machine and he said, `I'll punch in your name.' And
I immediately kind of thought, `Uh-oh,' so I said, `No, don't do that,' but he
had already done it. So this thing came up on the screen which I can't
describe on a radio station. Let me say it was my publicity picture with a
picture of Clinton and I was in an obscene act. And James turned completely
red and I turned completely red, and I didn't go on Google for another--you
know, and I called The New York Times lawyer, who was this fantastic woman,
and I said, `You know, this is so embarrassing. If you put in my name, this
act comes up.' And she said, you know, there's nothing--`If we try to do
something, it'll just create more attention.' So I don't know. You know, now
I Google all the time, I just don't put my name in.
GROSS: OK, so you don't Google yourself. In case you haven't noticed,
there's one blog that has a Dowd Watch on it.
Ms. DOWD: You know, I don't read anything about myself because--and this is
what, you know, makes me very empathetic with people that I write about--since
I was little, I am so super sensitive. There was this movie called--I always
get the name mixed up. I think it was "Penny Serenade" with Irene Dunne and
Cary Grant, where they...
GROSS: Yeah, that's "Penny Serenade," right.
Ms. DOWD: And they adopt this little girl. And when I was little and I
watched it, she really dies because she falls off this wire at a Christmas
play, but it happens after her parents are ignoring her and then they feel
very guilty about it. And I thought she died just of oversensitivity because
her parents were ignoring her, and I thought that might happen to me. I was
so super sensitive, so my family is just stunned that I get into this business
where I'm, you know, kind of ripped apart every day.
But I don't read anything. If there's an article or anything, I ask my sister
to look at it to make sure I'm not going to be fired in some way. But other
than that, I try not to read it.
GROSS: A little paradoxical, don't you think, that your column really kind of
eviscerates some people either with humor or with, you know, reporting,
depending on what kind of column it is? And, I mean, you can be very tough on
the people you're writing about. And at the same time, you're so sensitive
about criticism yourself. Do you ever feel...
Ms. DOWD: Well, I don't tell people not to criticize me. I just don't want
to read it. I mean, you know, I don't...
GROSS: But you're not uncomfortable criticizing other people since you're so
vulnerable to criticism yourself?
Ms. DOWD: No, I mean, it took me a long time to get used to having a column.
I not a natural polemicist. And it was really hard for me. And six months
into it, I went to Howell Raines, who was the editorial page editor then, and
I said, `I really don't think I'm temperamentally suited to this. Maybe it's
because I'm a woman, maybe I don't like to mix it up this much. I don't want
to hear people attacking me all the time, and I don't want to attack people.'
I said, `I feel like I'm in a "Godfather" movie. I take one of theirs, they
take two of mine. You know, before you know it, there's blood all over the
And Howell was sort of like, you know, the Tom Wolfe-Chuck Yeager type. He
had a very calm, Southern demeanor, very deep voice. And he nodded and
listened as I poured my heart out, and he goes, `That's fine. I think I can
arrange a transfer back to Metro.' Now it had taken me, like, 15 or 20 years
to get off of Metro. I spent five years in a Washington suburb writing Bob
Woodward letters, begging him to hire me every day. So the word `Metro' was
like the guillotine focusing my mind. I just said, `Well, Howell, maybe I
could try it for another six months.'
So, you know, I don't find it easy, either, but I justify it to myself by--you
know, it sounds corny, but I think journalists are part of the system of
checks and balances. And I think people who are in the White House tend to
get in a soundproof booth, and so I think we can help sort of tweak them a
little and say, `Wait a minute, you know, didn't you say you weren't gonna
nation build?' or `What's this about?'
GROSS: My guest is New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd. She has a
new book collecting her columns called "Bushworld." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is my guest, and she has a new
collection of her columns called "Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk."
Were you as opinionated when you were a reporter as you are now as a
Ms. DOWD: No. I'm still not opinionated. You know, if I go to the movies
with a girlfriend and I'd say, `Wow, I like that,' and they say, `Oh, my God,
that was just a piece of junk,' then I'll think, `Oh, yeah, that was a piece
of junk.' And I always want what the other person orders after I've ordered
something. I don't think I'm opinionated in that way. I mean, I've trained
myself to kind of be a devil's advocate with politicians, you know, who are
doing thing that--who are using Orwellian speak or doing things that they said
they wouldn't do in their campaigns. But I'm not naturally opinionated the
way Anna Quindlen and Tom Friedman and Bill Safire are. I mean, my whole
journalism that I loved was letting people reveal themselves through their own
quotes in a very leisurely way and, you know, using observation and all the
stuff that I really can't use in a column. So it was hard to adjust to that.
GROSS: Do you think...
Ms. DOWD: In fact, Tom and Anna used to say--you know, when I first got it,
they said, you know, `Don't waste space quoting people. Just use that space
to get your opinion across.' And I was like, `Hmm, what opinion?' But I
didn't want to go back to my...
GROSS: But your columns are so opinionated. I mean, they're satirical, they
have strong points of view. I'm having trouble reconciling what you're
Ms. DOWD: Well, I think that's probably why I don't...
GROSS: ...with the columns that I read. Yes?
Ms. DOWD: ...like to go on TV or--well, actually I like radio more than TV.
I find it a better medium for me. But one of the reasons I don't like to do
it is because I don't have instant analysis. I really have to sit down and
report and think about it and figure out what I want to say. I'm not an
instant pundit. Safire jokes that I should be on some drug called punzac,
which would make it easier, make me more relaxed to be a pundit, but I haven't
quite gotten my doctor to prescribe it yet.
GROSS: Now before you were writing the column, when you were a Washington
reporter, you covered George H.W. Bush's presidency. And you write in one of
your columns, `Though 41 was always gracious, I know he was disappointed at
first to have drawn an irreverent, newfangled, quote, "reporterette," as Rush
Limbaugh would say, who wanted to focus as much on the personalities of
leaders as on their policies. He often kidded me about our love-hate
relationship, dubbing me his favorite-unfavorite Bigfoot columnist.'
You say that he was uncomfortable with somebody who wanted to focus as much as
personalities as on their policies. Do you see yourself that way, as being
more interested or at least equally interested in the personalities of
politicians as on their policies?
Ms. DOWD: Yes. I mean, I've gotten criticized for that over the years with
people saying, you know, I should be more focused on policy--well, in the old
days. I don't know, maybe not lately. But I always thought that, for one
thing, the vote for president is a very personal vote. I think even before we
got into these inane, you know, pop quizzes, like, `Who do you want to choose
the toppings on your pizza?' or, `Who do you want to watch your kids if you're
on vacation?' I thought that it was more of a gut reaction. So it makes sense
to focus--and even James Reston used to say, you know, once we got nuclear
capability, you had to know everything about the person who was running the
world because you had to know how they got along with their wife and, you
know, what they had for breakfast because that's how--you needed to be able to
trust their judgment. And you can only assess that by getting to know a
little bit about them as a person. Would they overcompensate? Were they
secure? You know, did they have good instincts about who to have around them?
Would they have people around them who would, you know, tell them the truth,
give them a hard time?
And, you know, it just seems when I've covered politicians, they can say
things like what Bush Sr. said, `Read my lips, no new taxes,' and Bush Jr.
said, you know, he would have a humble foreign policy and no nation building.
And then because of either their own gremlins or they're surrounded with
certain kind of yago(ph) counselors or different things can happen and--they
do the opposite of what they promised. So to the extent you can get a sense
of the person rather than simply what policy they're saying they will put into
effect I think is good.
GROSS: Do you think that as a reporter, back when you were reporting, that
you asked different kinds of questions than other reporters did?
Ms. DOWD: Well, I never asked any questions. The first President Bush was--I
remember my bosses--at the first nighttime press conference, the first
President Bush had my--the Washington--Howell Raines and Bill Taubman gave me
a four-part arms control question to ask. And I kept reading it and reading
it and memorizing it and trying to get up in prime time and say it. And I got
over there and I just realized, you know, I would get lost in the spigot of
arms control if I tried to do that, so I didn't ask it. And they were very
disappointed in me. And as each press conference went on, I never asked a
question. And finally Marlin Fitzwater came to me and said, `The president
says he's going to ask you a question.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did he?
Ms. DOWD: No, he never did. He would always tell me to stop staring at him
because I wouldn't be--it made him nervous to have someone looking at him who
wasn't asking a question.
GROSS: Did you know George W. Bush when you were covering his father?
Ms. DOWD: I only heard about him very sparingly. He was not in his father's
inner circle of advisers. He was sort of lurking around the edge of the
campaigns. He was the loyalty enforcer. He was the outreach guy to
evangelicals. He hung out with Lee Atwater in the political chop shop. And
the only time I really heard of him being involved in policy was when he was
brought in to tell Sununu--they'd already told John Sununu, the chief of
staff, who was sort of a bull in a china shop, that he was fired, but he
refused to leave his office. So they made W. go down and say, you know, `Get
out of the office.'
But the only time I really ran into him was at Kennebunkport once when his
father was golfing and I was in the pool. And his father used to love to get
the reporters up at 6 AM in Kennebunkport, and we'd race down to the golf
course and go out and sort of watch him, as though we were at the US Open.
You know, we'd watch him tee off and everything. And so the father had a
great sense of humor. And it was after the campaign, he'd won office--and I
had in my suitcase a Bob Dole Tough Enough tour '88 T-shirt and a Jesse
Jackson '88 hat. And so I thought it would be funny, as revenge for him
getting us up at dawn, to wear my Jesse Jackson and Bob Dole stuff, except
when he and W. came in their golf cart, he wasn't looking my way, but W. was.
So W. gave me this really scary glare and then sent word back to me afterwards
that I would pay for that.
But then I looked--you know, I wasn't worried about it because, at that point,
Jeb was the heir-apparent. And in my computer, you know, I had all this stuff
about Jeb, and under W. all I had was `George W., Midland businessman.' So
none of us were trying to talk to him or gather information on him because he
was the black sheep.
GROSS: So did you pay for that?
Ms. DOWD: No. And the day he announced, I interviewed him on the
Kennebunkport porch. And he reminded me of it and just was laughing, you
know, about his former kind of--he was much more tart and sort of
quick-tempered then, and he became very disciplined and charming when he was
running for governor and president.
GROSS: Maureen Dowd is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. Her new
book collecting her columns is called "Bushworld." She'll be back in the
second half the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with The New York Times op-ed
columnist Maureen Dowd. And Ken Tucker reviews new CDs by J.J. Cale and Ray
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Maureen Dowd. She's
written a political op-ed column for The New York Times since 1995. She won a
Pulitzer Prize for her columns on the Clinton impeachment. Before becoming a
columnist, she reported on the Reagan, Bush and Clinton White Houses. She's
just published a collection of her columns called "Bushworld." Our interview
was recorded yesterday.
It's interesting to read columns from the past in part because you stumble on
things like this. In a June 1999 column during the presidential campaign
George W. Bush who was then a candidate, told you, `I know what I believe in.
I believe the big issues are going to be China and Russia. It's important for
the president to think globally but in the long run security in the world is
going to be how we deal with Russia and how we deal with China.' What did you
think when you read that back in preparing your book?
Ms. DOWD: That's an amazing--I think that interview is really amazing. And
there's something he goes on a bit in a way. He has one line in there where
he says, `If, you know, no one is going to fool me or the United States,' or
something, which is so weird because, you know, we have been fooled by Ahmad
Chalabi, and so his whole point in that interview--my question to him in
that--that was the interview on the back porch in Kennebunkport when he first
announced. And I said, `My main question to you is: Doesn't it scare you to
run for president without any foreign policy experience?' Because he had--I
think because he was overawed by his father, he kind of stayed away from
foreign policy stuff because he didn't want to, you know, be sitting at his
knee, and he didn't want to compete.
So he was starting as tabula rasa, and he was very good in a way because he
wasn't insecure about it. But he also didn't seem aware of how dangerous that
could be. I remember him saying, `I'll just ask my advisers. I'll ask Cheney
or Condi or Paul Wolfowitz.' But I came back afterwards and I was telling Tom
Friedman about it, and Tom Friedman said, `But what he doesn't seem to
understand is the moment will come where two advisers that he really trusts
will have a complete difference of opinion, and if he doesn't know anything
about the world, how will he settle it?' And that moment came, you know, with
Cheney and Rumsfeld on one side and Colin Powell on the other. And at that
point he was--you know, the fact that he was so uninformed about the world, I
think, came into play.
GROSS: In one of your columns you called the Department of Homeland Security
the `department of political security.' Do you think there are political
elements either behind the latest alert or behind how the latest alert is
being discussed or described?
Ms. DOWD: Well, I think this is the big problem with how they went to war in
Iraq by hyping up the WMDs. I mean, it is the president who cried Wolfowitz.
I mean, our credibility around the world and Americans' ability to believe the
White House has just been severely damaged. How do we know anymore whether
what the president and his aides are saying is true or whether, once again,
they just have an agenda we don't know about and they're telling us what they
want us to think? I think that that bond of trust has been shattered. It's
very--no one knows.
I thought you might ask that, so I went and asked all of our political and
national security reporters whether they believed it or not. One of them
said, `Yes, absolutely, you know, we're in danger.' One of them said, `Oh,
this whole thing is ridiculous. They finally figured out that New York
buildings, you know, are under attack, so they figured out the 9/11 plan three
years later. Thanks a lot.' You know, the front page of The Washington Post
today says the president was just crying wolf and, you know, it's a severe
problem for its credibility.
So every--you know, even the experts don't know, you know, exactly what's
going on, and I think it's impossible for us to tell, because the president
has placed his political viability in a conflict of interest with our safety.
He's always spinning our safety. He tried to suppress the 9-11 Commission.
He wouldn't send Condoleezza Rice to testify until the pressure was on. He
refused to give certain documents. He didn't really want to put the stuff
that they recommended into play until the political pressure was on. So he
keeps trying to keep us from getting the information or doing the things that
will make us safer because he's in the middle of a campaign. So I think
that's a very frightening and dangerous situation.
GROSS: Now we've been talking about some of the criticisms, harsh criticisms
that you have of President Bush and his administration. It's not as if you're
particularly enthusiastic about Kerry; correct me if I'm wrong.
Ms. DOWD: Well, I don't really think of it in terms of who I like or who I
don't like. I just try and either, in the case of Bush, tweak power or, in
the case of Kerry, I just try and analyze how he's doing. So it's more of a
political judgment than a personal judgment. I mean, columnists aren't
allowed to endorse anyone anyway, although I'm not sure if Paul Krugman has
broken that rule. But we're not supposed to.
GROSS: And why aren't you supposed to?
Ms. DOWD: Because it's the role of the editorial page to decide who The Times
GROSS: I see. Right. Got it. Got it.
Ms. DOWD: ...support...
GROSS: Well, you...
Ms. DOWD: ...although some columnists make it pretty clear. But I don't
really want to do that.
GROSS: About the Democratic convention, you wrote, `The Democratic convention
was focus-grouped, dial-a-metered to death.' What was your criticism?
Ms. DOWD: Well, Shrum, you know, had hooked up all the focus groups to
these--they're called--I don't know what the official name is; I call them
dial-a-meters--where they test-drive every phrase to see how it comes across.
You could tell that the line Kerry had about the Saudis was focus-grouped.
And I think they tamped down Edwards' speech a lot because they were trying to
be positive and not negative. And maybe I'm being too naive here, but it just
seems to me that sometimes you've got to let rhetorics or not focus-group it
to death. And it just--the whole convention to me had the feel of something
that was very tested and tamped down.
And I know, you know, for instance, with Jimmy Carter's speech, he had the
line about, `You can't have a leader who misleads,' and I know they wanted to
change that to `John Kerry will be a good leader' or something, you know. So
I just feel like a lot of--Jimmy Carter resisted, but a lot of the edges were
taken off, which is why Al Sharpton, you know, kind of got that incredible
response because people just wanted to hear something from the heart.
GROSS: About Teresa Heinz Kerry, you wrote, `She's unlike any other political
wife I've ever seen: unscripted and ready to do as she likes in her
intriguing, world-weary way.' She has been criticized a lot for being
flaky--that's a word that's used a lot--a loose cannon, for telling a reporter
to shove it, for saying `Four more years of hell,' you know, if Bush is
re-elected. What's your reaction to that?
Ms. DOWD: I'm having a hard time reacting to her in any way but as a
journalist right now, and as a journalist, I love her. I can't get enough of
her. She's like this fantastic combination of Isak Dinesen in "Out of
Africa"--you know, `I had a farm in Africa'--and Isadora Duncan kind of
dancing around the stage with her scarves to her own music as though no one
else on stage matters. And you know, you so very rarely get especially wives
who are not totally sort of programmed or off to the side, that--you know,
it's a fantastic addition to the campaign as far as I'm concerned.
GROSS: Do you think that journalists have a double standard in the sense
that, on the one hand, you know, journalist's dream is to talk to somebody who
is unscripted and speaks honestly; on the other hand, if you do do that,
you're often skewered for it? And I think that that encourages people with
public lives to go back to just being very scripted because it sure is a lot
Ms. DOWD: Well, I think that Mrs. Kerry made the case in her convention
speech that she--or the implicit case that the reason she'd been criticized on
the `shove it' comment was because she was an opinionated woman, but I don't
think--you know, sometimes women--Hillary Clinton did this with health care.
Sometimes women will make a misstep, like in health care, the package was just
too unwieldy, and then they'll say, `Well, people just couldn't take this from
a woman.' And I know in society, yes, as my mom would say, women can stand on
the top of the Empire State Building and scream, you know, that they're equal,
but they won't be until the anatomy is the same, you know. And I understand
the inequalities, of course, and as a columnist who speaks her mind, I
understand what they're talking about. But I also don't think you can--you
know, if you make a misstep, you can't hide behind the idea that it's because
you're an opinionated woman.
Now Teresa Kerry--the reporter or columnist who asked her what she had said
about using the word `un-American' was asking a legitimate question. I mean,
he was from a completely scummy Scaife-owned newspaper and Scaife is scummy
and probably treated her badly, but she had made a comment about, you know,
un-American and un-Pennsylvanian things seeping into politics. So his
question was legitimate. And I think it's fair to question whether, by saying
`shove it,' she kind of took the attention off her husband, who, at that
moment, was trying to fly in, divert his plane and throw out the first pitch
and have this sunny, you know, scene in Fenway Park. So I think it's a
legitimate political question about whether she competes for attention too
much or takes the attention off. And she knew that the conservatives were
going to be gunning for her, trying to make her lose it at the convention, so
she sort of played into their hands. So to me, it's not really an issue of
whether people accept her as an opinionated woman. I think they like that
side of her. The question is: Is she taking the spotlight from him too
GROSS: My guest is New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd. She has a
new book collecting her columns called "Bushworld." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Maureen Dowd. She writes a political op-ed column for The
New York Times and has a new book collecting her columns called "Bushworld."
How much actual reporting do you do now, now that you're a columnist?
Ms. DOWD: I try to do--I mean, I want my column always to be reportive, but
unfortunately when you're a columnist, the pool--Tom Friedman said to me, `You
can never make another friend once you have a column, so I hope you like the
friends you have,' and I do. But also, the pool of people you can talk to
gets smaller and smaller because people don't want to give you interviews. I
mean, I prefer--my favorite thing is just, you know, sometimes I do these
cultural interviews and go and ask Bush and Kerry what movies they watch and
what TV shows they watch, and I love that, 'cause when you get them on a
different subject and they don't have prepared speech chunks, you can really
learn a lot.
And it isn't even whether they're cultural. You can learn how they relate,
and most of the time, the politicians who come across best don't know much
about culture, but they're not insecure about it and they're very engaging,
like Dubya said, `Oh, my favorite cultural activity is baseball and, you know,
I loved "Cats."' And it was kind of--you know, he came across as very sweet
rather that--I mean, Kerry in his interview was being a little pretentious in
talking about how he wrote poetry and he'd had an encounter with a deer that
morning and had written his, you know, doggerel about it. So it isn't how
much you know, but it gives you a window into the person. But if you do a
column they don't like, then, you know, your chances of actually getting to
hear them talk and see them in person get to be less. And I think that's the
hardest thing, 'cause I would much rather get to see them and have their
quotes than have my opinion of them which makes them mad, which makes them not
talk to me.
GROSS: Do you think that politicians often leak to the press for their own
means, and do you trust information that's leaked to you?
Ms. DOWD: Well, as I say, you know, I don't really have these sources because
no one speaks to me. But you know, I found early on that you don't really
suffer when you don't have sources. And especially, I think, the whole Iraq
War has proven this point, because the people who had the great sources ended
up doing bogus stories 'cause the sources were giving bogus information. They
fooled both journalists and the president of the United States and the
secretary of State.
So during Bush I, John Sununu got made at me one time; I think he even put
some sort of curse on my head; I forget what. But he--something I wrote, and
he kicked me out of his weekly briefings. And at first I was devastated. And
Howell Raines was the Washington bureau chief and said, `Don't worry, there
will be 10 more people standing in line to talk to The New York Times, to get
their name on the front page of The New York Times.' And that turned out to
be true, but what also turned out to be true was I realized as time went on
that he wasn't feeding me his spin and misleading stuff, so my stories were
better and truer than the reporters who were getting all the garbage in their
GROSS: You talked a little earlier about how you're uncomfortable, like,
having opinions and giving opinions outside of your column. And you're not
very comfortable doing television, you said. I want to quote something that
Howard Kurtz wrote in his book review of Ted Koppel's book from a few years
ago about "Nightline." And you had been a guest on "Nightline," and Koppel
wrote a paragraph about that, or approximately a paragraph in the book. And
so this is a quote from Howard Kurtz's book review. "A segment on the style
of George Bush's presidency featuring Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and
Alessandra Stanley, then of Time magazine, turned, quote, `stupefyingly dull'
in Koppel's words when Koppel stuffily insisted on exploring such matters as
US troop levels in Europe. `We've sort of run out of things to say,' Koppel
declared as the show dragged on. `We'll catch fire when we come back in a
moment,' the host promised. Finally, he thanked his guests, saying, `We must
do this again. Not too soon.' Koppel later..."
Ms. DOWD: I know. It was...
GROSS: And it says, "Koppel later apologized to the women for his rude
behavior." Did that--was that, like, a horrible experience for you?
Ms. DOWD: It was, it was. You know how you have that nightmare where you get
on national television and you don't know any of the answers to the test?
Ms. DOWD It was that night. My friends were falling off their beds laughing.
Alessandra talked me into this. She said it would be about the style of the
first year of the White House, which I felt no one on earth knew more about it
than I did. I was the New York Times White House reporter, and even though I
didn't like TV, I felt prepared to talk on that subject. But apparently Ted
Koppel was grumpy that he didn't want to do a political show that night, and
he, you know, decided to teach us a lesson. And the one thing you don't want
is to be taught a lesson on air by Ted Koppel.
And I had told the woman, the producer or the booker that I was not--that Andy
Rosenthal, my partner, was doing the Bush military budget and that I didn't
know anything about it and couldn't answer any questions. And she said, `I
will assure, you know, Mr. Koppel of that.' And it was the night of the State
of the Union, but I was getting ready for my Bush style program. And so Ted,
in order to prove how boring politics was, I think--I mean, this is my theory;
he might say something different--decided to, like, ask really boring
questions. And so he has Alessandra on, who's this fantastic style expert on
the Bush White House, and he's asking us these very complicated budget
questions. So he turns to me, and we're on national television, and he goes,
`Maureen, can you tell me the difference between the 1990 and 1991 military
budget and be specific?'
And I have to say, my whole life flashed before my eyes. And I peeped over
over Brit Hume and Jeff Greenfield, thinking they'd save me somehow, and they
didn't. And the time stretched and stretched on. And I remember
saying--thinking I'd do what I'd seen other people do, and I said, `Well, Ted,
I don't think that's the question. I think the question is Bush's personal
relationship with leaders and how he drives them on motorboats and tries to
forge this personal relationship.' And Ted goes, `Well, that's just silly.'
And it went downhill from there. And I remember his last words to us were
something like, `Well, come back, but not too soon.' And Alessandra went, in
Valley Girl talk, `Thanks a lot!' And that's the last line in the transcript.
And he wrote me a letter of apology which is more valuable to me than all the
letters I've gotten from presidents because I think it's probably the only one
in existence. But you don't want to be on "Nightline" the night--they were
referring to it in the control room, 'cause the woman, the booker rushed up to
the control room to say, `We told her we wouldn't ask about the military
budget.' You don't want to be on the show that is referred to in ABC as `the
night Ted lost it.' That is not where you want to be.
GROSS: Did that scare you away from doing TV?
Ms. DOWD: It did, but I have to say also what we talked about before; I just
didn't want to be in the conservative-liberal box, so it was a good excuse to
be scared away from TV.
Ms. DOWD: And when I see Ted Koppel now, you know, he's always teasing me.
He's always going, `Oh, come back.' I'm like, `I don't think so.'
GROSS: Does the pressure ever get to you of having to come up with something
to say that everybody else isn't saying that's also funny, you know, a couple
of times a week?
Ms. DOWD: Yeah. The first couple years I had the column, I was basically
curled up on the floor of my house every night crying. And then I went to the
gym and I went to a nutritionist, and I've tried to, you know, not have so
much pressure. But, you know, one time, I remember one time during the
Clinton stuff, Mike McCurry called me at home and screamed into the phone,
`You are draining us of our precious bodily fluids!' And I just had to laugh,
'cause I felt that they were draining me, you know. But you know, it's an
amazing--I mean, it's the best real estate in journalism. Mostly I realize
how incredibly lucky I am, and it's scary. Sometimes I wake up and think,
`Oh, my gosh, you know, people are listening to you. You're giving opinions
in The New York Times.' But I take it really seriously and I try to do it as
responsibly and well as I can.
GROSS: Well, Maureen Dowd, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. DOWD: Thank you.
GROSS: Maureen Dowd is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. Her new
book collecting her columns is called "Bushworld."
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by J.J. Cale and one by
Ray Bonnevillle, who fits into the tradition Cale established. This is FRESH
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Review: New albums "To Tulsa and Back" by J.J. Cale and "Roll It
Down" by Ray Bonneville
TERRY GROSS, host:
J.J. Cale is best known for writing early '70s hits for himself and Eric
Clapton such as "After Midnight" and "Cocaine." Cale's vocal and guitar style
are characterized by a leisurely and laid-back tone. "To Tulsa and Back" is
Cale's first studio album since 1966. Rock critic Ken Tucker thinks another
artist, Canadian-American Ray Bonneville, could be Cale's slightly younger
counterpart and that his new album, "Roll It Down," is a worthy complement to
the tradition Cale has established.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. J.J. CALE: (Singing) My gal don't like them red, red roses. She don't
like perfume. No, my gal don't got no fancy notions. She just likes to make
love all night and sleep all afternoon.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
The question with a performer like J.J. Cale is simple: Why? Why keep making
music when you're probably past your prime? Why keep working changes on a
style that half the pop music audience knows in its sleep and the other half
wouldn't know if you threatened to put them to sleep? Why, in short, should
we listen to J.J. Cale in 2004? Well, because of songs like this.
(Soundbite of "One Step")
Mr. CALE: (Singing) One step forward and two steps back, and canebrakes upon
my back. Boss man told me, `You ain't getting paid,' but my house is built
and the bricks are laid. It's made out of wood, made out of stone. And the
builder don't know ...(unintelligible). If that's the way it is, let me tell
you, Jack, it's one step forward and two steps back. Working in heat, got a
row to hoe...
TUCKER: For a guy who's spent a lot of time talking about the pleasures of
not doing much, Cale sounds freshly engaged in "To Tulsa and Back." That song,
"One Step," finds a narrator talking about his regrets at finding himself in
the position of having to do a lot of manual labor for an employer he resents.
Resentment is a fresh theme in Cale's music, but he's careful not to make it
sound like pity. He takes it a step further in "The Problem."
(Soundbite of "The Problem")
Mr. CALE: (Singing) Have you heard the news that's going around here? The
man in charge has got to go, 'cause he dances around the problem, boy, and the
problem is the man in charge, you know. Now the young...
TUCKER: J.J. Cale uses the phrase `the man' the way they used to in the late
'60s, as a figure of corrupt authority. But he does so in the midst of a
shuffling, easygoing rhythm that allows one guitar riff to snake through the
song and stiffen like a spine. You can hear Cale's influence on the playing
of Ray Bonneville in a song like this, "Stand Real Still."
(Soundbite of "Stand Real Still")
Mr. RAY BONNEVILLE: (Singing) Woman got no sleep last night, a line of
storms came through. Baby woke up crying, took a while to soothe. Elbows on
the table's edge, tired to the bone. Wish I had a song in her head, just
seemed to come along if you stand real still. If you stand real still, if you
stand real still, you can hear her heart beat, mmm.
TUCKER: A dual citizen of Canada and the US, Bonneville is a bigger deal up
north. His new album, "Roll It Down," won Canada's Grammy, the Juno Award, in
the past year. Bonneville has a lot of Delta Blues, New Orleans funk and a
Bob Dylan rasp.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BONNEVILLE: (Singing) Out of a dream ...(unintelligible) the ringing of
the telephone. What'd you say your name was now? Don't I know you somehow?
Somehow, don't I know you somehow? My friend from long ago, no word since I
don't know. Time here, time gone, no use trying to slow it down, slow it
down. No use trying to slow it down.
TUCKER: Both J.J. Cale and Ray Bonneville are best at making romantic
yearning and regret deceptive. The music comes across initially as laid-back
and slowly reveals the fervor of men struggling for emotional control. Like
the terse, cut-off characters in hard-boiled fiction, they tip their hands
whenever they pluck a guitar string.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"To Tulsa and Back" by J.J. Cale and "Roll It Down" by Ray Bonneville, which
will be released here later this month.
I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.