She is known for her wit, her merging of popular and political culture, and her equal opportunities skewering of politicians’ personalities. She got her start in the late ’70s as a sports columnist for the Washington Star, and went on to become a reporter at the Times.
Her long history covering and speaking with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have culminated in her new, best-selling book, “The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics.” It’s a collection of her columns about the candidates, as well as musings about the Bush dynasty and more.
And Maureen, it is an honor to have you.
Maureen Dowd: Thanks, Rico.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you write about this moment in history– we’re going to start with a quote from your book — “We are in one of those rare, inharmonic convergences when reality is more absurd than satire.”
Now, you’ve covered nine presidential elections, so you’ve seen a lot of absurd things go down. What was the moment in this one where you were shaking your head, like, “I cannot believe this is happening.”
Maureen Dowd: It reminds me of the Stefon skit on “SNL” where he reviews night clubs. I keep thinking, “OK. This election has everything. It has Russian hackers, white supremacists, small hands, penis taunts, Kardashian-like Twitter feuds, dueling federal investigations, Pepe the frog…”
Rico Gagliano: That’s a lot of movies you could make out of this election thus far.
Brendan Francis Newnam: We need Bill Hader back.
So, if reality is this heightened and absurd, where does that leave you, a columnist who usually is the one kind of using caricature and satire to give us insight into the political world?
Maureen Dowd: It’s very much like when Tom Wolf wrote “Bon Fire the Vanities” and the actual events in real life in New York were getting ahead of him, and he was trying to keep up. That’s how I feel.
I wrote a satire about what was going to happen when Donald Trump had his first meeting in Washington with Paul Ryan, and the Republican party — it’s like some kind of production “Taming of the Shrew.” They thought they were going to bring Donald Trump to Washington and tame him. So, I wrote about how Trump spent the whole meeting pouting and upset and whining.
And so then, I called Trump and I interviewed him about what had actually happened at the meeting for the next Sunday column, and it was so exactly like my satire that I had to start with the first sentence saying, “This is not the satire, this is the actual interview with Donald Trump.”
Rico Gagliano: “So, it seems like the column.”
Maureen Dowd: Yeah, ’cause he’s like a toon. He’s like this Batman, villain cartoon. So the press keeps trying to figure out how to get their hands around it.
Rico Gagliano: That’s a good question, though. How do you see your job these days, as opposed to the rest of the press?
Maureen Dowd: Everyone’s always mad at me. Most columnists come from the left or the right, like Paul Krugman and Frank Bruni and Tom Friedman. They all have a warm place to go to [laughs]. And I do not, because I’m not-
Brendan Francis Newnam: People suggest you go to a warm place. A very warm place. They tell you to go to hell, in fact.
Maureen Dowd: Exactly. So, I don’t write an ideological column, it’s more like Shakespearean kind of showing the drama about how power warps people, or how they rise to the occasion. So, I think a bit more like a watchdog. And that means you’re watching both sides.
In this one, it’s particularly tense because a lot of people think — as Hillary said at Hollywood Fundraiser recently — that she’s the only thing standing between us and the Abyss. So, people think we should give her a free pass and just focus on Trump’s sins. But I just think when you want to be the most powerful person in the world, you have to be held accountable.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I want to ask you, we’ll get to the interview questions in a moment, but a question about craft. This is a question in your columns. You’ve also talked about stress in producing a column. Frank Rich once described it as you dodge a windmill. As soon as you duck once, another one is coming at you.
Maureen Dowd: Being a political columnist is being like what the great political cartoonist, Pat Oliphant called, “stirring up the beast.”
Rico Gagliano: Standing up to power.
Maureen Dowd: It’s just hard. It’s a little bit like “The Godfather.” You take one of theirs, they take one of yours. And I’m just temperamentally not suited to that. Some people really like that, mixing it up, but the first six months I had [the column], my hair was falling out, my skin was breaking out.
This one Friday night I came home and I stopped by Popeyes to get some chicken. And I got home and I put Clearasil all over my face and then I was eating a chicken leg, and I saw myself in the mirror, and I said…
Brendan Francis Newnam: “This column is going it be the death of me.”
Maureen Dowd: Yeah! I said, “This is not how William Safire spends his Friday nights.” You know, it wasn’t as some elegant dinner party.
So I went to my boss and I said, “I really don’t think I’m suited for this.” And he goes, “OK, well you can go back and be a metro reporter,” which I had been for so many years. And I just said, “OK I’ll take another shot at it.”
Rico Gagliano: You’re like, “I’ll try this out.” Why don’t we add to your resume: Etiquette advice-giver. You ready for these questions?
Maureen Dowd: Yes.
Debate party decorum
Brendan Francis Newnam: This is from Patrick in Pittsburgh. Patrick writes: “Should someone at a debate viewing party be quiet during the debate, or cheer their candidate? It bugs me when State of the Union addresses become exercises in performance of applauding, and I want to avoid that, but is that just wishful thinking?”
Maureen Dowd: That’s a great question and I actually have a lot of personal experience in this because I watch the Republican primary debates with my siblings, who are very conservative, who I call my little “basket of deplorables.” And my liberal friends would come over, and colleagues, and it’s sort of like if you have Jets and Patriots fans in the same room.
You know, if you’re all Jets fans, it’s OK to yell and scream. But if you have Jets and Patriots, maybe it’s better to be quiet. But the fun of the debate is if you could say snide things all through it, but now you can just do it on your phone on Twitter and be quiet in the room if it’s a mixed crowd.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, there you go Patrick in Pittsburgh.
Rico Gagliano: Look at Twitter during the debates.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Pennsylvania, a battleground state, too. It must be particularly tense up there.
Maureen Dowd: Right, exactly.
Straphanger chivalry is dead
Brendan Francis Newnam: This next question comes from Julie in D.C. And it’s about another thing in Washington that doesn’t always work: the metro.
The question here says, “I have a broken leg and ride metro to work. Even though I’m on crutches with a bright red cast, I don’t always find a seat. The people who usually offer me a seat tend to be frail older women. And able-bodied people don’t respond well to my direct request for a seat. Can you think of an effective way to ask, aside from taking someone out with my crutch?”
Maureen Dowd: I mean, you could stand in front of them and just guilt trip them. But I’m very sympathetic to this because I sprained my ankle and have been limping through my whole book tour. I love the red cast, though. I think that’s really great.
You should do what I do when, especially if you’re injured, and just take an Uber.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well. That’s easy for somebody with a job at the New York Times, but what about those of us–
Maureen Dowd: Only if you’re like, limping. Because it’s so painful, it’s worth it.
Rico Gagliano: Shell out for an Uber.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I find in New York, more often than not, people will often shame someone into giving up their seat.
Maureen Dowd: Yes. Give that Hillary Clinton glare that she gave to Zach Galifianakis.
Rico Gagliano: But I’m wondering what is going on in D.C.? According to Julie in D.C., she’s directly asking able-bodied people, “Could you please give me your seat?” And they’re like, “No.” What kind of jerks…
Maureen Dowd: Well you know we’re in Selfie Nation and we’re so narcissistic.
Rico Gagliano: Self-obsessed.
Maureen Dowd: Also, because of ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], you know? I mean, people may need more stimulation.
Rico Gagliano: So maybe if Julie pokes the person while asking for the seat, maybe that will–
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think there could be a class analysis of this. If she has a bright red cast, clearly she has health care. And there are other people sitting on the metro, probably working double shifts, coming home. And they’re like, “You know what? This woman is pretty much taken care of. I need to rest ’cause I only have two hours before I have to take my kids to school.”
Maureen Dowd: Yeah and they’re studying the Law of the Sea Treaty or something.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Exactly.
Rico Gagliano: You’re very magnanimous you guys. I appreciate that. All sides of the issue.
Gauging whether to engage with Twitter trolls
Here’s something from Jack in Los Angeles. Jack writes, “When someone tweets disparaging things about you, how do you gauge whether to engage.”
Maureen Dowd: Well, I would say don’t engage unless it’s Donald Trump. Because this happened to me last weekend. He tweeted that I was a “wacky,” “crazy,” “neurotic dope.”
Wacky @NYTimesDowd, who hardly knows me, makes up things that I never said for her boring interviews and column. A neurotic dope!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2016
Crazy Maureen Dowd, the wacky columnist for the failing @nytimes, pretends she knows me well–wrong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2016
And then it’s the same stuff he says about every woman journalist, just like, “wacky,” “crazy,” “neurotic dope.” So I didn’t feel special anymore.
Rico Gagliano: So, did you tweet at him?
Maureen Dowd: Yeah, I tweeted some stuff, so he got my book up 50 places on Amazon. So that guy can sell books. If he flames, you engage.
Web Bonus Audio
Below, Maureen answers the question “Is what’s good for writing columns the same as what’s good for democracy?”