Does the Gray Old Lady know that she has a Lady in Red working for her? "The girl in the red dress will always be my red badge of courage," writes Maureen Dowd, Pulitzer Prize—winning political columnist for the New York Times in the first few pages of her new polemic, Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide(Putnam). On the cover of the book, artist Owen Smith has fashioned a lady subway rider who looks a bit like Dowd herself. Asked if it she who is gracing her own cover, Dowd only utters a street-wise, "I wish."
I catch up with the elusive Dowd at Orso's restaurant on Manhattan's Restaurant Row, just a few blocks from the Times' headquarters on West 43rd Street. Dowd, arguably the doyenne of the political columnists, is a rather mysterious figure, almost the clandestine columnist. You may occasionally hear her on Imus, or see her on Bill Maher's cable show, but she is not a face you'll find among the loquacious bare-all pundits on the Sunday morning political gab-fests.
Are Men Necessary? goes where the editorial page of the New York Times wouldn't dare—politics, sex, plastic surgery, happy pharmaceuticals and the end of feminism. When asked how firmly her tongue was in her cheek when she wrote the book, Dowd replies, "Very firmly. An interviewer from Playboyasked me, 'Will you be happy when there are no more men?' I said, No! I said it's humor. The whole choice of the cover artist and the cover is all supposed to convey that it's supposed to be fun and sexy and kind of feminine."
The book took shape in Dowd's mind as she covered the inner machinations of various administrations. "As you know," she says with a laugh, "when you cover the Bushes for 15 years or so, you don't write a lot about sex. And I can remember only two times that sex came up. At one point I was interviewing Barbara Bush who told me that her husband had asked her what a bikini wax was. That was the closest with the father. With the son I remember during the 2000 campaign another reporter asked him what he thought about Sex and the City. He had never seen it and thought they were asking him about sex-in-the-city and he got kind of flustered."
Dowd smiles at the born-again president-to-be's disquietude over sex, then continues. "You deal with wars with [the Bushes] and a lot of class and character issues, but not sex. Obviously, with Clinton we did. The two specialties in my young life were always politics and men and women. At some point I thought it would be real fun to put it all together and have all these morsels that men and women could talk about."
Dowd was born in Washington, D.C., in 1952. Her father Michael, an immigrant from County Clare, joined the D.C. police department and rose to become inspector in charge of Senate security. The book is dedicated to mo cuishle—"my darling heart" in Gaelic—her mother Peggy, who passed away this past summer at the age of 96 and was the biggest influence on her life. "People often ask," says Dowd, "because I'm critical, who I admire. I definitely say my mom. She was Irish and she had a really neat ability to balance total integrity and fairness with rage and self-deprecating wit. A serious person about the world in terms of knowing what was right and what was really important. I love that quality of aliveness." Besides, you have to love a woman, as Dowd has reported, who alwayscarried a small bottle of Tabasco in her purse.
Dowd's first book, Bushworld, a collection of her columns, came out in 2004 and was a bestseller. It dealt almost exclusively with the politics of the times, whereas Are Men Necessary? takes on issues that target more the battle of the sexes than the battle of Baghdad. When asked point-blank if she intimidates men, she is forced to pause. "I don't see it in myself, but I'm sure I must. I have that one anecdote in there about the Broadway producer who told me he couldn't ask me out because I'm so intimidating. I'm supersensitive to criticism and I know a lot of men are, so I'm sure a lot of them shy away from going out with someone who criticizes for a living.
"My thesis is that feminism is dead," she says. "That it's been trumped by narcissism and materialism, which are much more important 'isms' in the 21st century. I think it might be something that Rush Limbaugh would be interested in." When asked if she is a "lapsed feminist" she is taken aback. "That's interesting, like a lapsed-Catholic? Well, that's a really good question," she says pausing to think. "I'm definitely a feminist, but feminism as a movement has fluttered out and as a word has taken on implications that young women don't like at all. They [the feminists] took all the fun out of it. Barbi was wrong and fashion was wrong and sexiness was wrong."
Another thing that Limbaugh will like about this book is the Hillary-bashing Dowd engages in, basically blaming her for killing feminism through her husband's administration. It may shock some who consider Dowd a liberal—"I see myself as an anti-authoritarian, not a liberal or a conservative"—because of her non-stop bashing of Bush and the war in Iraq. "Hillary Clinton has this kind of Faustian deal with a lot of people where you support them, but you lose something in the process. That was the deal with the feminists. They got progressive policies with Clinton, progressive policies for women, a progressive First Lady. But they also got [President Clinton's] retrogressive behavior towards women and they had to help the Clintons on that and that was the price they paid. And the more they paid that price the more they ended up looking like hypocrites. So for daycare, they were bought off."
The talk returns to Washington politics and how the press has begun to turn on George W. Bush. "My favorite book when I was little," says Dowd, "was The Book of Live Dolls where the dolls came alive and got to play with their owners. That's what watching the TV coverage of Katrina was like, it was like watching the live dolls—Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper—all these people who had been very pro war, suddenly come alive because they could see that what Bush was saying wasn't true. They were there and could see, which they can't really do in Iraq."
Dowd worries about how quiescent the press has been when it comes to challenging administration policy. She points to Bill Maher losing his job as a troubling development, but doesn't worry at all about succumbing herself. "I grew up in a family where all the guys were in uniform—my dad was a cop, my brother was in the Coast Guard—so I never thought I was being unpatriotic. I think that was hard for a lot of the press corp."
When asked who the next president of the United States will be, Dowd turns coy. "Well, that will answer the question, Are men necessary?, won't it?" she says, laughing heartily. "I think it's going to be really interesting, because John McCain wants to run and that is as macho a campaign as you can get. And Hillary wants to run—and she's not going to throw like a girl."