Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd’s “Bushworld”

VTR Date: October 5, 2004

Maureen Dowd discusses her book on Bush-era politics.


GUEST: Maureen Dowd
VTR: 10/05/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I had the interesting experience the other day of watching and reading some of the many television appearances today’s guest has made over recent months.

These were on the Today Show, on Meet The Press with Tim Russert, on the Charlie Rose show, and on Brian Lamb’s wonderful C-SPAN program. All, of course, were occasioned by Maureen Dowd’s first book, “Bushworld … Enter At Your Own Risk,” published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and mostly drawn from my guest’s always wonderfully well-written, frequently angry-making New York Times Op-Ed page column.

Now, Ms. Dowd won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1999 on Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial. And one assumes that Democrats learned then why today’s Republican President – Bush 43 – has a nickname for her: the Cobra. As my guest herself notes, she’s an “equal opportunity” critic. And by now most of Washington’s high and mighty have learned that the hard way.

But I wanted to start off today by asking Ms. Dowd what she’s learned during these weeks and weeks of interviews about “Bushworld – Enter At Your Own Risk,” learned about herself and about the power she wields – whether she likes it or not – as a wide-ranging and freewheeling Op-Ed columnist on America’s, perhaps the world’s, most powerful newspaper, The New York Times. I hope that my guest won’t just be demure and insist, as so many media people have insisted at this table in the past, that “there’s no one in here but us chickens … we journalists really don’t wield that much power.”

So I would ask her, what she has learned – about the world around us and about the power of her column in these recent months.

DOWD: Mmm, that’s a fantastic question. I’ve learned it’s time for me to get off TV, very, very soon. [laughter] You know what I’ve learned that’s interesting … I was … I did an England and Irish book tour this past week and I just got back. And I’ve learned that, as painful as TV is for me … it’s really been healthy and good for me to defend my positions.

And I think you saw with the President in the debate the other night that when you don’t learn to defend your positions and you’re just surrounded by people who tell you you’re great and agree with you, you can really kind of lose a sense of reality.

And I think when they had all those cutaway shots of him looking impatient, like he really didn’t want to be there and he didn’t really have to defend his position … what that told you is the danger of being surrounded only by the information that fits your pre-conceived notions.

And only by the people who say, as Dick Cheney does to him, “You’re the man. You’re the man.” So you need to have people around you in any leadership position or any position of responsibility, like a column, who are going to tell you if you’re screwing up.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that in your tour there were those who were critical of you?

DOWD: Oh …

HEFFNER: … and what you write in Bushworld?

DOWD: Oh, sure, yeah, of course.

HEFFNER: On what grounds?

DOWD: Ahmm, well, just to be kind of counter-intuitive. And the British, of course, have this great … when they have debates … it’s really a debate; it’s not a debate where the two principals aren’t allowed to ask each other questions or approach each other from the podium … all these hilarious rules that Kerry and Bush had.

But there was one woman on … who had a show called, like “Hard Talk” on the BBC, and she was questioning me, “How can you can say that George W. Bush is a bummer?” And I was trying to say, “Well, it’s, you know, it’s gone from Reagan “shining city on the hill” to this dark bunker and it’s a very dark and paranoid “my way or the highway” atmosphere where they’re blowing off and insulting the allies. And she goes, “But you’re calling the President of the United States a bum.” And I go, “No, no, no, that isn’t what bummer means.” [Laughter] I was trying to explain it was American slang for a kind of a bad trip. But …

HEFFNER: Has anyone here been very critical of your book? As I watched those programs, they were all enormously admiring.

DOWD: Yeah, you know, I expected Conservatives to be more critical, but it’s funny … I invited a lot of … I had, had gotten to know well and liked a lot of Conservatives during … when I covered the first President Bush and the very tail end of Reagan. I covered a little bit of Nancy Reagan. But I didn’t break the astrology story … unfortunately … although I did ask her if she was superstitious once.

HEFFNER: Did you know it?

DOWD: No. She … we were on Air Force Two … flying somewhere in Malaysia and I had an interview with her and I said, “Are you superstitious at all? And she goes (knock, knock) …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

DOWD: No, I’m just like a normal person (knock, knock) and she was knocking on the formica. But anyway I got to know a lot of Conservatives. Well, my whole family are Conservatives and a lot of them were at my book party. And, you know, I guess they have other fish to fry with Iraq and everything going wrong. But they didn’t come after me, as vociferously and, you know, viciously as I thought they might.

I mean I think they know by now, because they know how I covered the Clinton White House, that I am, as you say, “an equal opportunity skeptic”, or as the comic Dave Chappell puts it, “a genetic dissenter”.

HEFFNER: You mean it’s in the DNA?

DOWD: Maybe. Because my dad was a police detective, who was in charge of Senate security for 20 years, and he used to come home at night and just talk about whether the politicians, the Senators … he was there with JFK and Johnson and, you know, Nixon and all these guys and whether they were phonies, or whether they were decent people. More than … he judged them that way, rather than a party, so maybe that is in my DNA.

HEFFNER: Will you give us a list?

DOWD: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Which were the phonies and which were the real ones?

DOWD: In those days?


DOWD: Yeah. Well, my dad actually said, you know, Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater were two of the nicest guys he met. Johnson tended to be a bit of a bully. And JFK … my brothers were Pages and they said … my brother delivered mail to JFK and Richard Nixon … had adjoining offices in the Senate at one point, and he said when you go in JFK’s office you were instructed by the head of the Pages not to talk to JFK or to try not to look at him, as though he were a king. And he would never acknowledge the Pages when they came in with the mail.

And then you’d go next door to Nixon’s office, and Nixon would be like “Hi, Mike, how are you? How are you doing today? How’s your family?” And he’d be the most charming guy in the world. Which only proves that Nixon knew he had small-scale charm where he had to charm people one by one. And Kennedy knew he could blow the screen away and charm everybody at once.

HEFFNER: You know there was a question … one of the programs I watched … it was the Charlie Rose question … I was quite taken by it … in fact, when Charlie said, “Can I see the Catholicism in your column?” You said, “That’s a good question.”

DOWD: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: But you really didn’t go on to answer it. And I’d like you to answer it.

DOWD: Well, it’s hard for me to tell really. Of course I think, you know, if I … if I have one thing going in my favor as a journalist, it’s been my ability to trust my own eyes, you know, to see the world as a woman and a Catholic and a working class woman. And I don’t try and be something I’m not. I mean I look at the world that way.

And so during Anita Hill, you know, everyone asks me, “You know, how did you know, you know, that that would be this big story, and that it would turn into this big thing where it was these … White male judiciary committee, who didn’t seem to get it about a Black woman. And I have to say, I didn’t even see that. Hal Rains, the bureau chief, was the one who kept pressing me, like “Let’s look into this.” But, in other cases … and, then as that went on … and in other cases, I tried to trust my eyes, you know, as … as I’d been inculcated in all these things I grew up with.

HEFFNER: And inculcated … how?

DOWD: Well …

HEFFNER: … not in what way … but, what are those …

DOWD: Well, I’d just been …

HEFFNER: … basic principles?

DOWD: … baked … I am working class Catholic … female … and I just … and that’s how I see the world. I don’t know exactly … I mean I think it would be for others to analyze, you know. Why that makes a difference.

HEFFNER: It’s funny that you say that’s for others to analyze … the thrust of your book is basically this Freudian approach to Bushworld … it’s quite something when you write, “I have covered other feverish bouts where Washington was overtaken by the convoluted psychologies of people in power; the Iran/Contra hearings; the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings; the Clinton impeachment hearings; the 2000 election storm; but this is the most astonishing and dangerous subordination of American history to particular psyches I’ve seen. It’s bad enough that two Presidents have been trapped in Bushworld, the perverse theme park created by W’s posse, but now all of America and most of the planet find themselves trapped in Bushworld with them.” What do you mean?

DOWD: Well, everything that’s happened in this administration has to do with the son’s relationship with the father. And everything that’s happened to us has to do with their relationship. From the very beginning … the fact that the son, when he ran for President was very unformed and didn’t know much about foreign affairs, so the father had to surround him with his own Desert Storm counsel to give voters confidence that he would be able to run the country.

So he surrounded him with Cheney and Wolfowitz and Condi and Colin Powell and that was made clear very early on in the campaign so that W would be seen as having more gravitas because when he had the foreign affairs quiz, he didn’t know, who General Musharraf or any of the other world leaders.

So from the beginning he stayed away from foreign policy because, as in any family, you know, when, when you’ve got … you know, I’ve got a niece who was great at ballet, so her sister didn’t want to do ballet. It was the same with W and his dad. His dad was obsessed with foreign policy and very good at it. And so W stayed away from that.

He didn’t … he was overawed by his father to start with and didn’t want to compete with him, so he was the loyalty batter and evangelical outreach in the campaign. But he was not involved in, or interested in, foreign policy. Probably because he dad was so much so. So, so he starts out with this, you know, lacunae on foreign policy and then he’s surrounded by his dad’s people because of that and then once he’s elected and 9/11 happens and he doesn’t … still doesn’t know that much about foreign policy and has this steep learning curve, Cheney steps in and becomes much more influential because W is unformed.

So everything follows from the father/son relationship, including the fact that W and Carl Rove used the father as a reverse play book. So everything that the father did they do the opposite, so they won’t have a one-term Presidency like the father. And that includes going back into Iraq and fixing, you know, the ending of the Iraq War, as the father left Saddam, so the son had to get rid of him.

HEFFNER: If it were all aimed, as you suggest at re-election and not having, again, a one-term Presidency, were they smart in what they did?

DOWD: Well, you know, I understand why they don’t want to repeat some of the father’s mistakes, and I guess that’s smart. But when W so blatantly presents himself as the heir of Ronald Reagan, a man who overwhelmed and intimidated his father for 8 years and then the father finally gets out of his shadow and has his own Presidency and then has to watch his son present himself as the son of Reagan rather than Bush.

And also the son, you know, gave this interview to the Washington Times in May where he said, “I’m not going to cut and run, like they did in 91”. Well, that’s his dad and his dad admitted to Imus recently that that hurt when the son said that. So it’s this weird dynamic. So yes, maybe it’s the right thing not to repeat the father’s mistakes, but when they have it as such a public modus operandi, how humiliating is that for the father. Think if your son did that, and he just said, “I’m going to base my whole strategy here on not doing anything you did, because you screwed up.”

HEFFNER: Have we ever been in a position before when that kind of intrapsychic phenomenon has determined the fate of our nation? You, after all, what you say, when you talk about the world paying for this psychic endeavor, means that my grandchildren are going to pay for that. It means that a 1000 plus Americans have already paid with their lives for that. Has there ever been anything comparable?

DOWD: I think American history is always shaped by particular psyches and the demons of Presidents. When I, when I was in college, you know, I came of age in the time of Vietnam. And so we were watching, you know, Johnson, who was so kind of insecure about JFK, that he put aside his own brilliant political instincts that he’s used getting the civil rights bill passed, and relied too much on JFK’s Ivy League advisors, like McNamara because he, you know, he had this insecurity about JFK. You know, JFK … if it was good enough for JFK, it was going to be good enough for him.

And, and then Nixon, you know, I got my first job in journalism, typing when reporters would call in on deadline from the Watergate trial. And certainly Watergate, you know, all these crisis that scarred American … Americans and became our national nightmares, came from the Presidents having these demons and insecurities. And Watergate came from Nixon’s demons and insecurities. So I think, you know, this happens a lot. Because Presidents are humans. And, that’s how Shakespeare made his living, you know, describing, you know, the fatal flaws and screw-ups, you know, by kings. You know, human nature doesn’t change.

HEFFNER: You remember when Nixon ran and a group of psychiatrists took an ad in your paper, the New York Times, in which they said that he really wasn’t psychologically fit …

DOWD: [Laughter] No, I don’t remember that.

HEFFNER: … to be President. And they were condemned because it wasn’t their business …

DOWD: Mmmmmm.

HEFFNER: … they didn’t know him first hand, they shouldn’t have gotten into that … how do you handle this?

DOWD: Well, it’s so funny. Well maybe they should have … you know they have a White House doctor, why don’t they have a White House shrink? You know, that’s probably … any President probably needs to have someone he could talk to. They’ve done … they did that funny movie about it, with James Coburn …

HEFFNER: You remember that …

DOWD: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and the sense of what the President was really like … the insides.

DOWD: Yeah. And they had it on The West Wing, you know, the President kind of talked to a psychiatrist. That was a wonderful plot line. But in real life it would be, you know, politicians would get destroyed if they ever, you know, were seen as seeing a psychiatrist.

HEFFNER: Now listen, let’s not just joke about it. There maybe a headline in your paper or some other paper that says, “Maureen Dowd recommends that there be a psychiatric examination made public”, perhaps. How serious are you about delving into someone’s inner thoughts, psychiatric problems, advantages …

DOWD: Well, see …

HEFFNER: Do you think you can do it?

DOWD: Well, I don’t think of what I do in this book as psychobabble. For instance I use the term psychobabble when Gore and Clinton came into the White House, Gore brought with him a facilitator that he had had when he was a Senator.

And they all went to Camp David for the weekend, with the facilitator and the facilitator urged them to tell stories from their childhood that were scaring. And Clinton talked about, you know, being a little fat boy. And Madeline Albright told stories and Warren Christopher, as I recall, refused to get involved in this. But Gore was very much into this kind of thing and at their convention they used a lot of … you know, they both talk about how they’d been in psychiatric counseling … Gore when his son was in a car accident and Clinton when his brother, you know, had cocaine problem.

And so they were very much, had the language of psychological counseling but the Bushes are the exact opposite. They’re WASP, they’re not introspective, you know, they don’t want to answer questions or be questioned and it’s a complete opposite situation.

HEFFNER: But you …

DOWD: … but I don’t think it’s psycho-babble, because I think you’re relationship with your parents, you know, determines everything. I mean, when you date someone if they’ve had, like, a bad relationship with mother, it can bleed into your relationship with them. I mean that’s not … that’s the way we live. That’s myth; that’s literature; that’s everything. You know, everything is our relationship with our parents.

HEFFNER: No. I wasn’t saying that in the book was psycho-babble … that’s language. You say what you think about the relationship, the psychic relationship right out … and you’re saying that the rest of us are stuck with it.

DOWD: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: Now, what do you do?

DOWD: Oh, what do you do? Well …

HEFFNER: You can … you can be aware of whether you’re fiancé’s mother or father did this or that … what the relationship is. What do you do when you get to this level?

DOWD: Mmmmm. You think we should give them some sort of psychiatric evaluation …

HEFFNER: Well, you said …

DOWD: … before the election.

HEFFNER: You’re really suggesting …

DOWD: … I don’t know … you know, I, I’ve never been to a psychiatrist and my Dad used to, you know, think they were witch doctors. So, I’m not quite sure how that should be handled.

HEFFNER: You’ve never been to a psychiatrist? What leads you then to delving into the psychic relationship between father and son here? Shakespeare?

DOWD: Yeah. Because I don’t … I don’t really think that the kind of relationships between … within a family and in, what you might call here, a royal court, are psycho-babble. I think that’s, you know, the essence of life.

HEFFNER: What are you going to do when you grow up?

DOWD: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What are you going to do …

DOWD: Ohhhh …

HEFFNER: … I mean …

DOWD: … that’s a good question.

HEFFNER: … I know … I can’t imagine you’re going to be willing to continue to do what you’re doing right now.

DOWD: Yes, I’m not going to cover the Chelsea/George P. election and I can guarantee you that. Ahhh …

HEFFNER: Prediction?

DOWD: [Laughter] I don’t know, they both seem very interested in politics and we seem trapped in this kind of Bush/Clinton, Bush/Clinton … each dynasty trying to get a restoration. I mean if Bush wins, it will be the beginning of the Hillary restoration.

HEFFNER: But what are you going to do?

DOWD: That’s a good question. I’ve threatened to go and be a cocktail waitress in Montana. But …

HEFFNER: What’s the matter with that?

DOWD: I’d love to be like a torch-singer, if I had a good voice, but I don’t.

HEFFNER: You have the torch singer look.

DOWD: [Laughter] Is that a compliment? Or an insult? I don’t know.

HEFFNER: It’s neither. It’s a statement of fact. But, you do feel that way, don’t you?

DOWD: Mmmmm. Only in my fantasies.

HEFFNER: Only in your fantasies?

DOWD: MmmHmm. Julie London, that’s what I want to be when I grow up.

HEFFNER: Not bad. Not bad.

DOWD: Except I might not marry that Dragnet guy … [laughter] … Jack Webb.

HEFFNER: Look, being serious, very serious for a moment. What do you see, that you can tell us, about the power of the media today, the beginning of the 21st century?

DOWD: Oh, I don’t know Hal Rains always used to say, if the media had so much power Ronald Reagan never would have been elected, you know.

HEFFNER: A lot of people said that about Franklin Roosevelt. But you don’t believe that.

DOWD: I don’t know, there’s so much … the media’s so disparate now … you know, we’ve got “bloggers” and we’ve got, you know 500 cable stations. And it’s not like in the days of James Reston, Walter Lippmann, where they would hand down their opinion, you know, every two days and it would be ex cathedra and everyone would be waiting for it. I mean it’s just … you know we’re in a tower of babble, with everybody yelling at each other and everybody contradicting each other and … I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Do you think, though, that your paper, as has been said so many times, sets the agenda?

DOWD: Mmmmm, yes, because I think that, you know, a lot of TV executives read it, and anchors, so they’re playing off of the Times. And everybody responds to the Times, and even Bush, Senior, you know sometimes writes me letters and E-mails and he’s kind of, you know, critiquing the Times. And Bush 43 recently was talking about, you know, an Ann O’Hare McCormick column, he didn’t use her name, but he was obsessing on the Times. So, they do … everybody …

HEFFNER: He was talking about one of her …

DOWD: Yeah, he was just; he was trying to make the point that there were nay-sayers and gloom and doom people even in World War II, you know …

HEFFNER: Gotcha …

DOWD: … during the German …


DOWD: … re-building, but he mis-characterized her column, as he so often does.


DOWD: He just …didn’t … hadn’t read it … and the speechwriter had mis-read it, and they stuck it in a speech and he was just repeating what the speechwriter put in.

HEFFNER: You know, when I go back to the early columns, by early I mean early in the Bush Administration, in this quite, quite a book Bushworld …

DOWD: Don’t you love the cover?

HEFFNER: The cover is magnificent.

DOWD: Did you see the gargoyle on the spine? I love that.

HEFFNER: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Everything …

DOWD: It’s my favorite part.

HEFFNER: … that was your ability to get your friend the artist to do that.

DOWD: No. I was lucky … Arthur Gelb told me … he said “Oliphant is the Hirschfeld of political cartoonists and you’ve got to call him and ask him to do it; even though I was sure he didn’t remember me from the Washington Star, because he was a big star and I was a dictationist, though.

HEFFNER: He did remember you, though.

DOWD: Ahhhhh, I guess … he’s so … you know, he’s an Australian, and sort of very shy and a man of few words. So I’m not sure how well he remembered me, but he agreed to do it.

HEFFNER: You know, I don’t want to go back and forth and we just have a couple of minutes left, but I was serious about the question of “What are you going to do when you grow up?” What, what does … what you have done to this point, lead you to want to do … besides being a cocktail waitress in Montana.

DOWD: Well, part of the reason I wanted to do this book and, and get over my fear of TV and hawking myself, you know, which is so embarrassing to me, it feels so narcissistic … was so that maybe I could do, you know, a novel, or, you know, other books. And so … but I’m still scared on TV [laughter] so I’m not sure I’ve accomplished that yet

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “scared of TV”?

DOWD: I’m just … I’m scared of it … I am.

HEFFNER: What does that mean?

DOWD: That I don’t, I don’t like to go on and talk about myself, I can’t wait to get off; I feel like I’ve destroyed all my mystery that I spent all these years …

HEFFNER: Oh, that’s true.

DOWD: … protecting …

HEFFNER: That’s true.

DOWD: Now I’m just another TV chatterer … nattering nabob of …

HEFFNER: As your friend, Bill Safire would have said.

DOWD: Exactly.

HEFFNER: Maybe the answer is to go on television.

DOWD: [Laughter] More …

HEFFNER: To be a television news person.

DOWD: Get my … get my own show.

HEFFNER: Journalist.

DOWD: I don’t know about that.


DOWD: … because the Putnam publicist says I say, “Ahmmmmm” too much and my friends tell me I say “you know”, too much and talk like a Valley Girl, so I’ve got a long way to go.

HEFFNER: Where did you get that?

DOWD: I know, that’s a … I didn’t grow up in California, either. I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Washington, DC, it had to be there.

DOWD: Terrible, terrible habits of speaking.

HEFFNER: I think they’re wonderful, wonderful habits of speaking. When you put them all together as you have … Maureen Dowd, I’m truly grateful to you for coming here and I hope you’ll come back …

DOWD: I will definitely …

HEFFNER: Not just to talk about …

DOWD: In 13 years … [laughter]

HEFFNER: Now that’s not a threat.

DOWD: No, no, after I stay off TV for another 13 years.

HEFFNER: Yeah, okay. Thanks again for joining me on The Open Mind.

DOWD: Thanks, that was really fun.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.