Veteran New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has made a name for herself as an astute, sometimes incendiary, observer of the personal foibles of our nation's political elites. A new book compiling her Times pieces, The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics (Twelve), has just been released. On the occasion, Dowd spoke to us about this year's surreal presidential campaign, her one-time "girl crush" on Hillary Clinton and why the personal is always political.
You are no fan of Hillary Clinton–you’ve written countless columns over the past 25 years calling her out for her missteps and scandals. So what do you think about the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency?
I don’t think political journalists should be blinkered boosters of politicians. If they’re doing something great, say it. If they’re doing something not great, say that, too. My early writing in the book about Hillary, when she first came on the national stage in 1992, is so positive and supportive that some interviewers have asked me if I had a “girl crush” on her. But she has made some mistakes that I’m not sure she has learned from, and she has some self-destructive patterns that trip up her idealistic, public-servant side. It sounds a little corny, but the function of the press in the democracy is checks and balances. Watching Dick Cheney try and occlude checks and balances reinforced my feelings about how important that role is for us. I criticized Clinton for setting up a private email server outside the State Department system because it was reckless. But her own administration also later labeled that extremely careless. I also criticized Clinton for blurred lines with the family foundation and the State Department, but they have now said that Bill will step down if Hillary wins, implicitly acknowledging that the ethical concerns exist.
Matt Lauer has been heavily criticized for how he moderated the recent Commander-in-Chief Forum; some in the media have said he was unfair and sexist. Do you agree?
I think because of Donald Trump’s estrangement from the truth and Hillary Clinton’s shading of the truth, candidate forums can’t be entertainment extravaganzas. The hosts should be journalists like Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, and Jake Tapper--[people] who know enough to fact-check in real time.
Some have criticized your columns for focusing too much on the personal missteps of politicians, and not enough on their career accomplishments. What do you say to these detractors?
After covering nine presidential campaigns, I have come to believe personality is destiny. Our greatest national traumas, from Vietnam to Watergate to the invasion of Iraq, have been sparked by presidents whose judgment was marred by insecurity. Candidates can vow during a campaign to have a humble foreign policy, as George W. Bush did, or to work hard to bring red-and-blue and black-and-white together...and then the opposite happens. Harry Truman had a wonderful observation, quoted in my introduction: “You never can tell what’s going to happen to a man until he gets to a place of responsibility. You just can’t tell in advance.’’
After Americans made history in 2008 by electing Barack Obama to be our first black president, how did such a reactionary figure as Donald Trump emerge as the Republican nominee during the very next election cycle?
W.’s Administration was very black and white and bullish, determined to turn America into a hyperpower. Fatigued by the Middle East quicksand, voters looked for someone with more nuance and less desire for mindless global domination. They turned to a young senator who had called the Iraq invasion a dumb idea from the beginning, bypassing the expected nominee, Hillary, who had voted to authorize the Iraq war. But, as Obama’s Pygmalion, David Axelrod, told me, some voters grew impatient with the president’s nuance, and yearned for black and white, setting the tone for a candidate like Trump, who presented himself as a strongman. As Axelrod put it in a piece he wrote for the Times: “Many Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr. Obama in 2008. Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness.” Who could be more of an antithesis of President Obama, Axelrod concluded, than the "trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?”
This interview has been edited and condensed.