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The new writers' bloc: they've got attitude, humor, and an eye for detail. But could journalism's new stylists do more?


Last winter, Spy magazine opened a Washington bureau with the expected agenda. Its arch, warts-and-all journalism, heretofore largely limited to Hollywood and New York illuminati, would be brought to bear, just in time for the campaign, on national politicians.

A few years back, as I read Spy's unsparing dissections of short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump and party invertebrate Jay McInerney, it crossed my mind that Washington could benefit from a few Spy treatments, that it would be good to see the Richard Darmans and Dick Cheneys held under the Spylights until they started to melt. But as I read the invitation to the bureau's grand opening just as the 1992 primary season opened in New Hampshire, it seemed that Spy, for once, was behind the curve. Beating it to the suckerpunch was-- could it be?--The New York Times.

It wasn't Spy that first called Bill Clinton a "letter-sweater smoothie"--although it swiped the line a few months later. Hillary as "Lady Macbeth in a black preppy headband"? Spy wishes. Rather, the images of Bush as the existential Yankee and Mario Cuomo as the fleshchomping Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs were conjured up by Times Washington correspondent Maureen Dowd. Her white-hot reporting on the front page of the Good Gray One is changing the standards of mainstream political journalism, for better and worse.

"Welcome to the first presidential campaign with an air of Pirandello," Dowd wrote at the advent of the Democratic primary season, "an absurdist adventure marked by ironic detachment, existential angst, black humor, and, believe it or not, a vow of celibacy." The theater metaphor is not accidental. In an overpolled, focus-group age, Dowd's great talent is to find fresh drama in the political process. For instance, other reporters variously interpreted Paul Tsongas' poll surge last winter as a mandate for deficit reduction, voter attraction to unslick politicians, or an expression of dissatisfaction with other candidates. To Dowd, it was a scene straight out of Butch Cassidv and the Sundance Kid. "The candidate keeps plodding relentlessly along the trail, gaining ground, as the party leaders look over their shoulders with fear and grudging respect, wondering, 'Who is that guy?'"

She's funny frequently, sneering when necessary, earnest almost never--a combination that makes Dowd, according to Washingtonian magazine, "the most feared" Washington reporter. She's also, hands down, the most imitated. Today's campaign planes and buses are freighted with Dowd disciples: hyperliterate capital-W Writers with an eye for detail and an ear for the shuffling going on behind the curtain. The Washington Post's David Von Drehle bluntly informs us that "minds reeled and eyes glazed" at yet another pneumatic Clinton speech; later he compares Bush without a Teleprompter to "a toddler lurching along the edge of a swimming pool." Timesman Michael Specter doesn't woodenly describe the strategy memos of sundry campaign consultants; he creeps inside the heads of "the political henchmen, the minders and puppeteers who make their living by calling the Titanic the Love Boat."

If traditional election reportage seemed to fade right at the breakfast table, this year's accounts of the orchestration of the photo ops, the pomposity behind the circumstance, are sometimes as colorful and attitudinous as Pucci prints.

So why is the Creeping Dowdism in political reporting starting to irritate me? Maybe it's just jealousy--no one writes better, faster, or with more twisted imagination than Dowd. But maybe it's also that, as Dowd might write, the strong spin might be the wrong spin. Forget the usual critic's plaint that this reporting's not objective--it's not, but Dowd's bile spreads fairly evenly across the political spectrum. (Besides, just because the Times' Robin Toner is more boring doesn't mean she's less biased.) Rather, what's unsettling is the dark vision of the pointlessness of politics that Dowd and her followers deliver, a vision that an onslaught of bright images can't obscure. Preoccupied with the feints and counterfeints, the preposterous and the poseurs, they seem to believe, and then to promulgate, Dowd's own metaphor. The democratic process is reduced to Pirandello, to theater of the absurd. Trouble is, this audience can't get up and leave.

What qualifies a political writer as a member of the growing cadre of Maureen manques? Research uncovers a few distinguishing style cues. First, in a naked bid for the video generation, pop-culture references are sprinkled through the copy. Why paint Jerry Brown as the dark horse, the underdog, or any of the other deadline-writer cliches when he can be the subversive Penguin in Batman Returns? To impress the editor, on the other hand, higherbrow references--Tsongas, according to Dowd, talks like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby can work magic.

In the hands of these writers, politicians and their cronies seldom say anything. Instead, as Michael Specter illustrated recently, they "continue rapidly, seemingly without breathing." Twitches and gestures are uniformly construed as revelatory: When a politician picks his nose, it's a raw moment of internal excavation. And the writer never says it once if he can think up several variations: "They are to presidential politics what Bartels and James are to wine," observed Timesman Steven Holmes this fall of Clinton and Gore, continuing helpfully, "Ben and Jerry are to ice cream, and Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, are to silly but sage advice about cars .... "

Not many moons ago, this sort of literary journalism, traditionally the province of magazine writers, would have given a true daily newsman the willies. If the dailies had to have it--and by the late sixties the market seemed to dictate that they did--it tended to be relegated to the opinion or style pages, a ghetto Post news editors used to call, derisively, "downstairs." Not that there weren't a few front-page freewheelers; Nicholas von Hoffman's roiling Post coverage of the civil rights movement, for instance, was a profile in editorial courage. But when the average newsman dared insert opinion into A-section copy, a "News Analysis" warning label was slapped on for protection.

But that was back when a reader needed his newspaper to tell him what had happened. Today, by the time the morning paper hits the doorstep it's already primed for the scrap heap of history, most of its contents having been broadcast on TV at 5, 6, and 11 the night before. With television cornering the this-just-in market, the obvious remaining niche is that of analysis--a niche happily confluent with a new breed of journalist, broadly educated and plump with literary pretense. In the realm of political reporting, the product of this coupling began appearing, in jarring spasms, during the '84 and '88 campaigns. Jules Witcover probably wouldn't have thought to compare Jesse Jackson to Woody Allen's omnipresent Zelig; the Times' Alessandra Stanley did, brilliantly, and Jackson still hasn't lived it down. Dowd analyzed Bush and Dukakis' music and movie tastes, found both candidates sentimental captives of the firties, and produced one of the most talked-about profiles of the campaign. The popularity of those early efforts wasn't lost on the powers that be: This election, attitude and metaphors are nearly as common in the newsrooms of major dailies as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The Times they are a-changin'

Of course, the hazards of such high-wire writing are obvious, especially in the hands of lesser talents. Let's take this moment to declare a moratorium on the deer-caught-in-headlights simile, used so far this year to describe Bush on the hustings (William Satire), Moldavian officials meeting James Baker (Thomas Friedman), and Dan Quayle (David Broder, Von Drehle). And then there's the occasional metaphor that cries for a whirl in a Waring blender, like Michael Specter's stunning effort in an article on spin control in the New Hampshire primary: "This year spin has reached new heights, or torque intensity, as dozens of campaign aides bounce from reporter to reporter like pinballs laced with the antidote to truth serum."

And, inevitably, there's plain old tortured prose. Perhaps this Dowd/Friedman passage on Baker's return to the Bush campaign should have come with complimentary Dramamine: "In this year when politics trembles with rage and dislocation, when the campaign trail has become the wild earth, when voters are fed up with the old boys' clubs and Washington insiders and excessive attention to foreign policy, it is likely to be rough weather for the patrician pals who have relished their years striding the world stage."

Yet the occasional offense against literary sensibility shouldn't obscure what's wonderful about the new style--qualities best illustrated by the woman who sparked the trend. While less adventurous reporters fawn over their powerful subjects or keep all doors open with leaden he-said/she-said reportage, Dowd's writing demonstrates true guts. Her portrait of, say, Richard Darman's slimy yet effective politicking skills--flattering up, waging psychological warfare with competitors, carefully creating the illusion of workaholism--isn't going to incline him to return her calls faster. But it does a swell job of showing us how a master negotiates the shoals of Beltway politics. And her eye for the revealing detail is tough to match. In one recent Dowdscene, Bush, campaigning in Texas, mars his pork-rind image with a prep-school tendency to say "whoopsie daisy" and "by golly"--a Dowd paragraph that gives us a better feel for our geeky commander-in-chief than a dozen lesser profiles.

While it's perennially popular to diminish the importance of character in politics--syndicated columns mocking voters for exaggerating its relevance were a staple of the primary season--history suggests that personality matters a lot, whether it's Nixon's paranoia (hence dirty tricks in a campaign he had a lock on) or Jimmy Carter's distaste for confrontation (hence his occasionally poor decisionmaking) or Reagan's sunny detachment (hence today's economic miasma). And students of the failed 1990 budget talks would do well to consider Dowd's reporting on the subject, which convincingly described how Sununu's arrogance turned congressional leaders against him, turning budget negotiations into a morass.

In terms of sheer political perceptiveness, few time-glotted magazine writers can accomplish what Dowd does, routinely, in a few days of observing and reporting. Yet character is only a piece of what a voter needs to know about a politician before he yanks that lever. Parse the ad lib to pieces, analyze the gesture for weeks, and you may still not get very close to what a politician will do while in office. Bush's character cues, for instance, aren't so very different from those of Franklin Roosevelt, another patrician who used cornball props--serving hotdogs to the Queen of England, for one-- in an attempt to come off as a regular guy. Measured on program substance, there aren't two presidents less alike in this century. This is where Dowd's style begins to grate. By the end of the Darman piece, we know that Bush's favored aide is a conniver with an appetite for Chicken McNuggets. Yet we aren't afforded a clue about what Darman actually does--that is, how he runs the Office of Management and Budget, his job for the last three years. This, after all, is the man who advocated Bush's infamous tax increase, who is the theoretical watchdog of spending in every federal agency, who helped bring America a $341 billion deficit. How'd he pull it off? You're going to have to collar him at McDonald's and ask him yourself.

Similarly, when the writer executes a lengthy campaign profile of Tsongas two days before New Hampshire, we learn all about a "Saturday Night Live" invitation, the effort to get him to sit up straight for debates, and his uncanny resemblance to a beagle. But there's just one substance-related sentence in the piece, on his controversial support for nuclear power. And this reference is made only to set up an anecdote in which he gets angry at a collegiate questioner.

Of course, you can't expect one writer to be a master of all trades. And even the crabbiest editor would balk before inflicting upon such a good stylist only subjects drier than a rash. But because Dowd is so good at limning character, and because her forum at the Times is so formidable, a generation of bright young writers is now imitating her--the flaws as well as the flourishes. Substantive political and policy pieces desperately need talented writers to make them come alive for the reader. Unfortunately, the more talented writers are desperately chasing after character and style. In piece after piece, this substance gap begins to look like more than an innocent sin of omission. One begins to sense a political nihilism undergirding the carefully chosen words.

While not every literary fillip from the Dowd Crowd is revealing, many of them are reducing. Von Drehle compares Ross Perot's appearance to Elmer Fudd's, and Bush's to that of an "oddly unfashionable" commercial air line pilot; Clinton and Gore are, as Dowd and Frank Rich have it, the "Double Bubba ticket" and "political Doublemint Twins." Reducing politicians--who calls them public servants with a straight face anymore? --to cartoons is as much a marker of Dowdstyle as the literary reference, only it's more troubling. It's fine to leave the fulsome profile to People, but there's often a conspicuous lack of empathy and generosity in the new writers' character deconstruction-- and sometimes an unmistakable lack of interest in providing meaningful insight. Do we get any closer to the essential Tsongas when Dowd draws him as a turtle "10ok[ing] around him with a slow, blinking bemusement at the vaganes of fate"? Is the picture of a campaigning Bush "plucking at his chest as though he could pull his soul out of a buttoned-down shirt" really telling, or is it a well-turned cheap shot? And more important, does it help us find out what we really need to know about the candidate before November 3: How will the damn fool lead?

Yet among Dowd and disciples, the characterpainting continually shoulders out meaningful questions about what the pretenders to the Oval Office have in mind. Once Dowd allows us to know that Kerrey has "large blue eyes and a light-bulb shaped head that give him the look of a bemused extraterrestrial," can we really take seriously the mechanics of his health-care proposal? Of course, in her preprimary profile of Kerrey, the health-care issue--his campaign centerpiece--never comes up. And why would it? In Dowd's character-centered conception, issues don't merit too much concern. They're largely props in "meticulous Kabuki dramas in which the candidates enact the themes they want to sell to voters in November."

Caricature assassination

Coursing through stories of this sort is a fundamental doubt about the beneficial possibilities of the democratic process. It's so phony, says the subtext, that I'm not going to try to wring out any meaning. Instead, I'm going to amuse you. That seemed to be the approach the Times' Elizabeth Kolbert embraced in covering a series of nasty Clinton-Tsongas exchanges in Florida in March. Characterizing the candidates' sparring as "a private spat being carried out in public," she wrote: "After listening to the two men harp at each other for a few days running, one cannot help feeling somehow implicated in their dispute. Perhaps, one wonders, it is time to find them professional counseling."

Kolbert's metaphor is as revealing as it is patronizing. Locking in on the posturing, she actually seems to believe that what they're arguing about-- which happened to be the taxation of entitlements for the affluent as a means of cutting the deficit--is as private a matter as a marriage dispute. In this conception, and it's not just Kolbert's, politics is not about affixing an imprint on a country or the world. It's a wholly self-serving, inner-directed enterprise.

How did these good political writers get so jaded about their subject? Times reporter John Tierney's winter review of a Pat Buchanan TV ad mocking Bush's no-new-taxes pledge offers, between the lines, a fair clue.

But then at some point, maybe around the 50th showing, for some viewers the sound bite begins to acquire a surreal fascination, as if it is disclosing something deep inside Mr. Bush. As he jabs his finger into the air and screeches the words again and again, with each commercial he begins to seem more and more desperate, more and more absurd. For these dedicated television viewers, it has been difficult to take the president seriously ever since.

I'd wager that Tierney isn't just speaking of "dedicated television viewers." He's giving us a glimpse into what it's like to trail the campaign as a member of the press. To these bored and overexposed insiders, everybody eventually begins to seem absurd, predictable, incapable of sincerity, inspiration, or meaning--undeserving of being "taken seriously."A game it is, then. Whoever pens the most metaphors wins.

What's so dreadful about that? Well, there's the tiresome matter of the people--what Dowd calls "the Joe Sixpack constituency." Sure, it's useful to them to know that politicians' proposals for tax relief or health care or education always involve a healthy dose of calculation, absurdity, and melodrama. But-- should we even have to say it?--when one of those politicians (however ridiculous) is elected, his proposals (however cynical) may have a real effect on their lives. Joe Sixpack knows this, and duller stories in the dailies outline it clearly: Polls and focus groups show that voters are very worried about the economy, the quality of public schools, and the cost of health care--and they're frustrated by the apparent inability of politicians to get serious about those issues. Yet even when explaining the national disgust with glib politicking, the popular yearning for discussion of real issues, Dowd can't resist singsonging: "They say they want leaders with candor, not leaders who pander."

Dowd and her disciples capture so many truths about political character and Washington ways--subjects that matter more than we usually acknowledge-that their indifference to the bigger picture may seem a forgivable flaw. There's a lot of room in the dailies, and someone else eventually gets around to doing the serious stuff. But as newspapers call for more Maureens to spice up their Washington copy, it's worth remembering that respect for the possibilities of government--and the people that government affects--isn't incidental to political journalism. It's the engine of meaningful work.

It's easy for Dowd to draw Tsongas as Howard Beal, "the mad prophet of the airwaves" in Network --"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" It's harder to analyze what the hell Tsongas, or any other candidate, is mad about; to take apart the deficit-reduction proposals, expose the chimera of the health care tax credit, and so on. What makes that effort worthwhile is a sense that the public is capable of understanding, that the issues do matter, that the system can be redeemed.

Consider, say, Connie Bruck's business reporting for The New Yorker, in which one can almost feel the beliefs bracing the surface. Bruck's eye for the markers of class, character, and the vagaries of organizational culture are remarkably acute, and her reporting is patient and thorough: qualifies that imbue her dissections of complicated Wall Street scandals or the Time-Warner takeover with accessible drama. Yet however icily she draws the Nicholas J. Nicholases and Ivan Boeskys, the heat of her ideals--chief among them that the wisest notion of "good business" is one that factors in the public good--radiates. Stock manipulation is probably trickier to explain . than politicians' manipulations of the health care issue; pre-Bruck, I couldn't understand a whit of it. Yet her work exudes faith that, if the writing is vivid and the story compelling, her readers will take it in. Still, Bruck at her best is corporate autopsy. Even better is journalism that finds the scandal before the public bears its costs, the pork before it's barreled, and uses good writing to make the urgency of the situation irresistible. Set the Dowd Crowd loose on the looming commercial banking crisis, and there may never be one.

Reporters will probably protest that such ambitious journalism wouldn't work in a time-strapped daily; then again, a decade ago one might have said the Dowdstyle wouldn't work there, either. Today, the writing, the character-consciousness, and the brazemess are present in spades. What seems to be missing is faith. Absent it, some daily stylists don't just get bored silly with their jobs. By shunning the questions that matter most, they also promote the postnring and superficiality they purport to despise. For instance, while dozens of reporters from the major dailies were stalking Bush and Clinton, sketching the twitching mouths and narrowing eyes, all missed one of the campaign's more significant sleights-ofhand: Bush's repeated references to Clinton's 128 tax increases in his 11 years as governor of Arkansas, compared to Bush's one in four. The truth, syndicated columnist Michael Kinsley eventually explained in his own acid style, was that if you used Bush's own overinclusive definition of a tax increase--a definition that included such items as a $1 court-cost fee on convicted criminals--the president had raised taxes 133 times. "[R]eturning to the would-be Bush theme of 'trust,'" concluded Kinsley, "I think I prefer Reagan's old mantra about negotiating arms control with the Soviets: 'Trust, but verify.'"

Obviously, good writing doesn't have to preclude tough thinking about the important things--taxes, health care, welfare policy, abortion--that politics, despite its clunky machinations, is really about. In fact, the possibilities of the good-writing/toughthinking combination are pretty amazing. Imagine, America's brightest, bravest political writers aggressively deconstructing candidates' histories and white papers, turning GAO reports into thrillers, exposing deception and chicanery at OMB, all with a sense of drama informed by the film version of The Last of the Mohicans. Unfortunately, as this campaign draws to a close, imagination may have to do. The smart, cynical Dowd Crowd has been busy elsewhere. And Hillary's headband never stood a chance.
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Title Annotation:influence of journalist Maureen Dowd
Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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