Nation & World

Dowd works the crowd at White Lecture

6 min read

Columnist goes for laughs, Dana Priest wins Nyhan Prize

Journalism, the saying goes, is the first draft of history.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd — who was at Harvard Oct. 25 to deliver a lecture — makes journalism seem more like a firecracker string of one-liners. She still likes her mother’s advice on succeeding in newspapers: “Get on the front page, and use the word ‘allegedly’ a lot.”

Dowd, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for a series of columns on the Monica Lewinsky affair, was at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to deliver the 2007 Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics. It’s co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Before Dowd took the stage, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest accepted the center’s third annual David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism.

Priest — who never took a journalism course — broke the story of secret overseas CIA prisons in 2005. In 2006, she both won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting, and broke stories on the inadequacy of medical care for Iraq War veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“Each year, this night is one of the great ones,” said Shorenstein Center Director Alex S. Jones of the double bill, an annual award and speech. He’s Laurence M. Lombard Lecturer in the Press and Public Policy and was a reporter at The New York Times with Dowd — who he said is “feared for her wicked tongue and biting prose.”

Quotes in any Dowd story “had the power of a punch line” in those days, added Jones, and her humor today “is so black as to be almost invisible.”

At the forum, Dowd kept her humor visible, and her delivery rapid and self-deprecating. “I’m afraid I’m going to be the Marie Osmond of Harvard — and faint,” she began, confessing “great dread” at the idea of public speaking.

But Dowd had the solace of recent advice from The New Republic contributing editor Michael Kinsley. “The fear that no one will show up to hear you,” she said, is leavened with “the desperate hope that no one will show up to hear you.”

Despite her hopes, the forum was jammed to the rafters for the dart-worded columnist’s Thursday-night lecture.

Dowd had the solace that her one-liners could also be “hearsay.” She related humorous wisdom from R.W. Apple, Russell Baker, one-time New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines, William Safire, and — repeatedly — the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., whose posthumous “Journals: 1952-2000” Dowd recently reviewed for The New York Times Book Review.

She quoted one of the venerable historian’s sentiments — that “a democracy should not have a royal family” — just before commenting on the long sequential years of Bushes and Clintons in the White House, with more to come. Dowd added a sentiment of her own about America’s political royal families: “DNA trumps data.”

And she wondered right along with Schlesinger: Why doesn’t the White House medical team include a psychiatrist?

“It’s amazing, really,” she said, “how people who get to run the country go weird on us.”

Dowd also passed along anecdotes that illuminate the quirky inner workings of journalism. In 1998, during the Lewinsky affair, the tell-all (Kenneth) Starr Report appeared — “complete bodice-ripping, heavy-breathing stuff,” said Dowd. Reading through it, old-school New York Times columnist William Safire had a question for her: “What’s a thong?”

In a minute or two, Safire got the general idea — then reassured his younger female colleague: “I just needed to know if it was a noun or an adjective.”

At the time, Safire and Dowd were on a New York Times op-ed page staff known to insiders as “murderer’s row” for its incisive commentary.

Today, journalism’s famously raffish reporters of legend seem to have been replaced by what Dowd called “the dweebs on the bus” — writers so deeply into their BlackBerries and other gizmos that they sometimes miss the story.

To Dowd, the story of politics has always been the story of its near-Shakespearean cast of characters — the strange, the grasping, the lazy, the luminous, and the egotistical.

She imagined a world with the laid-back Fred Thompson as president, for instance. He might have stuck a Post-it note on the refrigerator — “Saddam?” — then forgotten about it for years. Presto chango: No Iraq War.

In casting her ongoing Beltway stage play, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were the “two grumpy old men” of the Bush White House, said Dowd, driven to war by “a ‘shock and awe’ masculinity.”

The president himself — once described by Dowd as the “Boy Emperor” — is still the “the malleable and incurious W” he was eight years ago, she said. (Bush has nicknamed Dowd “the cobra.”)

But this column-writing daughter of a cop and sister to three teasing Bush Republican brothers, prefers seeing herself in other terms. “I’m more of a sniper, a tweaker, a kibitzer,” she said. “Someone who gives unwanted advice at a card game.”

To Dowd, the card game is politics, and the coin of the realm is power. She’s not an advocate or a partisan, said Jones, but “the skeptical observer.”

In a speech devoted to the Fourth Estate, Dowd turned some of that skepticism to the state of the media itself. “It’s a tough time for journalism,” she said — an age of technological transition, falling budgets, and shaky judgment. (One California media outlet, Dowd related, outsourced its local news coverage to India.)

“Still, call me a dreamer,” she went on, “but I don’t worry too much about journalism’s future.”

Why? “I have great faith in the story,” said Dowd, whether it comes from a blog or rolls off an old Royal typewriter. “The important thing is the narrative.”

At its best, that narrative challenges political leaders to tell the truth and do the right thing — most important in a post-9/11 world, when at first the skepticism of American journalists briefly weakened, she suggested. “We can keep pressing and keep pressing,” she said.

Comedians working in the tradition of English satirist Jonathan Swift have a legitimate place in journalism too, said Dowd, describing an improbable visit to The New York Times newsroom by television satirist Stephen Colbert.

News and comedy are just right for a new generation unsure about the details of political skirmishes, said Dowd. “It’s analogous to Harry Potter getting kids to read.”

And what about the biggest political fight of all, the war of the sexes? Dowd — author of 2005’s “Are Men Necessary?” — gave a real answer.

“I have great faith we’ll muddle through all that, with humor,” she said. “We’re stuck with one another until they come up with another species.”