The Maureen Dowd you've never seen


Somewhere in Australia there's an Irish lad called Rowan McCormick who broke Maureen Dowd's heart.  When she went back in the early 1970s to visit her homestead in County Clare, hard by the majestic Cliffs of Moher, she met him and fell madly in love.

Her older sister Peggy remembers that she was seriously worried they might never see Maureen again.  “She was totally in love. We didn't think we would bring her back,” Peggy remembers.

The Dowd family had traveled over with their mother to keep her company. Their dad, Michael, was national chairman of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the annual convention was being held in Ireland.

Sadly, like most summer romances, Dowd’s didn’t work out, and her beau departed for Australia. But when she was Down Under a few years back on a book tour she put out an all points bulletin and he came running.

Alas, he was married now and settled down. Dowd still sounds disappointed.

It is quite an image -- Maureen Dowd, scourge of every president since Poppy Bush and, arguably, the most powerful journalist in America thanks to her must-read column in The New York Times, talking of the road not taken, living a quiet life as a barkeep's wife back in Clare.

Maybe that image isn’t so fanciful, though. Spending a few hours in the back of a midtown Manhattan restaurant with Maureen and her sister Peggy is akin to catching up with relatives in a snug bar in the west of Ireland.

After lunch the theater crowd drifted away to the matinee performances and left the world to us. The Dowd sisters are very close, finishing each other’s sentences, adding a detail here and there.  

The talk is soon of Ireland.  Peggy is the family historian, and the stories flow like a familiar river. 

Peggy has her Irish passport; Maureen covets one. The focus is memories of their father Michael, a son of Ireland who bestrides their lives still, though he is long gone.

Michael from Clare was the son of a poor farmer in a poor country, the second child in the family named Michael after the first died.  He was booked on the Titanic in 1914, but his mother cried all night and he couldn’t leave her. 

The woman who took his place in the doomed liner survived and they met up years later. Though still a young woman, her hair had turned pure white from the fright of that awful night, or so says the family lore.

Michael eventually came to Washington, and despite a rudimentary education made it into the police force where he quickly climbed the ladder. Soon after he made detective he met Peggy Meenehan, whose father managed the family bar.

The cop and the barkeep's daughter were both champion Irish step dancers. In 1934 they married; the age difference was 18 years. They raised five kids together – Maureen, the youngest, Michael, Martin, Kevin and Peggy. 

Maureen's father was 61 when she was born, but he wrote his age as 50 on the birth cert. 

“It was hilarious that he lied,” Maureen says now, “and as a policeman, he was lying on an official document.”

The Dowds had it rough. Years later when Maureen would sometimes romanticize the 1930s her mother would wag her finger. “Those were tough and mean times,” mother would tell daughter.

Now Maureen says she knows what she was taking about. “We're back there,” she says referring to the current economic crisis. “We're back in a soup can economy.”

The sisters describe Michael as the cool, clean hero, devout and chivalrous to a fault, a man adept at sizing up people and situations like no other. Peggy says Maureen had the same gift from an early age and that she got it from her father.

He loved to read, especially newspapers. “He'd grab a morning, an afternoon and evening paper every day,” says Peggy.

Their strongest memories are of Michael engrossed in the newspaper sitting under a portrait of JFK, one of his heroes. So it is not surprising that Maureen felt the pull to write from an early age.

There were already other powerful role models in the family pantheon.  Tommy Corcoran, married to a Dowd relative, was FDR’s closest confidante, known to the president as “Tommy the Cork.”  He drafted much of the New Deal legislation and reputedly coined the phrases “nothing to fear but fear itself” and “rendezvous with destiny.” Roosevelt’s son Elliott wrote, "Apart from my father, Tom (Corcoran) was the single most influential individual in the country."

So being around power was also an early experience for the Dowd clan. And Ireland permeated the family’s early years.