The Year of Voting Dangerously
By Maureen Dowd
432 pages, $30
By Jeff Simon
“The wacky columnist for the failing New York Times” was Donald Trump’s tweet identifying Maureen Dowd when this book was published. She “makes up things” he wrote, adding for good measure that she’s a “neurotic dope.”
It is the nature of books to be more eloquent than tweets, which is why Dowd’s way of characterizing our current presidential campaign is considerably more credible than those tweets before it has even launched into full swing. “We have,” she writes inarguably in the introduction “two candidates with the highest unfavorables ever recorded and a majority of voters who feel stuck voting against, rather than for, someone.”
To Dowd, “we have an out-of-control id taunting a tightly controlled superego. We have the king of winging it versus the queen of homework. She says he’s too unpredictable to be president, he says she’s too predictable. … He’s anti-political correctness and she’s always overcorrecting. He does the post-ideological shuffle and she does the whatever-it-takes-to-win slide. … Both parties nominated the only person who could possibly lose to the other.”
The author of those words is no “dope,” however neurotic she may or may not be. But nor is she exempt from the major journalistic horror that has haunted journalism in the year of the most horrifying presidential election many of us have ever seen – “false equivalence” as it has been called by veteran journalistic practitioners who have discovered that almost nothing they have ever been taught (or which is teachable) about their profession is germane to this election where one of the candidates is entirely without precedent in American history.
To be genuinely “fair and balanced” is a noble aim, never to be forgotten by any working journalist – unless, of course, the house is on fire and you’re suicidal if you insist on reporting the fire’s side of the issues.
The dustflap of Dowd’s book – whose subtitle is “the derangement of American Politics” – shows us a “wacky” cartoon of Trump and Hillary Clinton on an escalator (an “escalator to Bedlam” as Dowd calls it in the title to her introduction). He is holding her back with his left arm and signaling thumbs up with his right hand. She, in turn, is kicking him in the small of the back.
Contrast that with the apocalyptic tone of Adam Gopnik in an essay on Trump in the New Yorker: “One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States. The order that has made it in fact the great and plural country that it already is. … If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American democratic experiment would be over. This is not hyperbolic predication, it is not hysterical prediction, it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump.”
Surely, then, Dowd can’t be on the “false equivalence” train along with the 24/7 cable news blabbers profiting immensely from the grotesque misapprehension of noble journalistic aims and the publisher of her own book, with the asinine “wackiness” of the dustflap.
They no doubt felt enabled in such doings when Dowd admits this: “out of all the things I discovered in politics over the years, watching Donald Trump morph from a Gotham toon into a presidential nominee is one of the most astounding.”
“I had covered him as a ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ as Spy magazine called him and as a blingy playboy (‘Best Sex I Ever Had’ trumpeted the New York Post purportedly quoting his mistress and later wife Marla Maples.”)
That’s an important and significant admission. What is crucial to understand about Trump is how much, way back when he was a “toon,” he was the product of the ongoing joke machine of what Tom Wolfe once brilliantly called “the big league complex” i.e. the insistence that all things Manhattan are “big league” and hence important. Trump, with his buildings and name plastered over them, was a Manhattan in-joke aided and abetted by shameless PR in the American home of the best shameless PR. Everyone who mattered was on board for the joke – Dowd, David Letterman, Howard Stern, Barbara Walters.
And then, he had a godawful TV show “The Apprentice” that became popular enough to survive and turn into a “celebrity” version. And now he’s prosecuting delusions in a way that only the best and most fearlessly truthful American journalists should be dealing with, not cable TV’s “false equivalence” bunch hack-boosting their ratings.
Fortunately, Dowd is just too good to succumb to foolishness. This is, in every way, a brilliant book. It’s still little more than a collection of her columns about the candidates and contexts of the past few years. The publisher’s lack of major enduring interest in it is conveyed not only in an infantile “wacky” dusflap but in decidedly lackadaisical editing – repeated phrases and ideas so unchanged when repeated they seem like bludgeons to her otherwise abundant inventiveness.
But even when errant on occasion, Dowd is not only a great political columnist, she may be THE great political columnist of our times, the only one comfortable enough with the rest of American culture not to turn stupid when she discusses it. But at the same time, she’s politically wonky enough to be steeped in the operations of both the real Washington and the Washington of our fantasies.
Yes, she played the Trump toon game with all the other Manhattan ironists now hoisted by their own petards. And she played the Clinton zipper/impeachment game and won a Pulitzer when it was all doing down. And yes she had so much regard for George H.W. Bush that her coverage of his son seemed to be modeled on both Euripides AND Aristophanes.
She is wickedly funny, bracingly candid and very smart about the invidious business of Washington, the ultimate company town.
If her flirtation with “false equivalence” sometimes seems corrupt here, it is a product of an uncomfortable fact: She is still in business as America’s most entertaining establishment political columnist.
Which is another way of saying that she’s the MSM columnist almost everyone loves to hate.
But she isn’t so “wacky” that she doesn’t know how dopey it would be in this election year to assume only one outcome – and one outcome only.
Only a dope wouldn’t know how dangerous this election year truly is.
Maureen Dowd is no dope.
Jeff Simon is the News’ Arts and Books Editor