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A 2-year-old Maureen Dowd dressed up in her shamrock dress for St. Patrick's Day

The secret life of Maureen Dowd

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A 2-year-old Maureen Dowd dressed up in her shamrock dress for St. Patrick's Day

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.

Maureen is pictured in the Washington Post at age 2 in 1954, plump and pretty, shamrock bedecked dress posing on St. Patrick's Day. Typically she critiques her first media appearance –“look, they had to give me potato chips to make me smile.”

Like Maureen, her dad had political favorites -- Truman was one.

“He tended to judge politicians by whether he thought they were phonies or not,” says Maureen. “I think that's one thing I inherited, besides wearing sunglasses indoors.”

As part of his job Michael Dowd guarded FDR and Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare, loved Truman but didn't like Bobby Kennedy, who let the side down by not bothering to hire some Irish who needed work on the Hill.

He won a medal for bravery and befriended high people, and saw places a young Irish emigrant had no right to dream of. Michael rose through the ranks to become head of the AOH, the largest Irish organization in America.

Her mother was an Irish rebel.  In the 1970s Peggy Dowd led a demonstration at the British Embassy after Bloody Sunday when 14 were shot by British forces in Derry.  To her eternal satisfaction the then British ambassador had to sneak in through the underground garage.

Maureen and Peggy agree she would have been “delighted” that President Barack Obama recently got rid of the Churchill bust that George W. Bush kept in the Oval Office.

Their parent’ biggest fight occurred on a trip to Ireland.  Being a Clare man, Michael Dowd wanted to go to Eamon de Valera's grave. His wife wanted to pay homage to Michael Collins. The Irish Civil War almost got reenacted.

On another occasion Mike Dowd arrived back in Ireland with an American car, a roadster. The locals were gobsmacked at the likes of this prosperity.

“They thought he was a “millunare, as he pronounced it,” Peggy says, laughing.

Their father had tried to set up an AOH museum in Washington for Irish artifacts. A priest in Massachusetts sent a holy medal that he had received from the mother of Michael Collins. He swore Collins wore it the day he died in the Republican ambush at Beal na Blath outside Cork city.

It remains one of the Dowd family's greatest treasures. Maureen wants to talk to the Irish Government about it.

Their father died in 1971. On her own deathbed many years later in 2005 Peggy Dowd talked out loud to him, leading Maureen and Peggy to believe he was waiting for her.  Their mother was hale and hearty for many years before succumbing to old age at 97.

Peggy was going blind towards the end. Maureen would go over to her and turn on the daily Mass at 8:30. 

Her mother loved Tim Russert and "Meet the Press." She confessed she hated going blind because it meant she couldn't see Tim Russert any more. The late great NBC anchor returned the favor, often wishing her a happy birthday on air. Somewhere in a green swathe of heaven that TV twosome continues.

When Peggy died the fulsome Washington Post obituary heading said simply: “Font of Advice.”

In many ways that has never changed. Maureen’s New York Times columns could be read in some ways as letters to the mother she still misses profoundly, full of the piercing insight and gossipy bon mots Peggy Dowd loved.

The old Irish rebel still lives on in the daughter. Mike Quill, the great union leader and 1920s IRA activist, is alleged to have told the immigration man letting him into America that, “if there’s a government here I’m against it.” Sometimes it seems Maureen feels that way too.

All these years later, the little girl that her father worried was too shy to get on in life has certainly proved him wrong on that score.

Dowd’s meteoric rise to the top of the media pile was achieved through sheer dint of hard work and an unerring eye for the critical detail that everyone else was missing. Along the way she has ended forever the cozy view of women writers as softly-softlys who leave the meaty stuff to the men.

Maureen’s assessment of the current crisis and its origins is direct and to the point.

“W is the guy who crashed the family station wagon into the globe. Obama is the guy who has to have the wreck towed and the globe repaired and the damages paid and the hard feelings soothed. From the lawless and heedless to the law-abiding and mindful,” she says.

Maureen makes no secret of her admiration of Obama, and points out her gleefully her Republican sister, disillusioned with Bush, has become an “Obamacon.”

She says Obama is “doing really well. He inherited the worst foreign and domestic policy crises of anyone since FDR and Lincoln. Just what he has to deal with is mind-blowing.

“We grew up in Washington. We’ve never seen a president treat Washington like a real city.  He and Michelle are out on date night, they are going to local restaurants and homeless shelters – that means a lot to me. As a native we’ve never had that.”

As for Obama’s cool image she says, “Americans love having a Joshua Bartlett type,” she says, referring to the fictional president of The West Wing TV show. “He’s elegant, intelligent, well-spoken.”

She has found him incredibly self-assured in private conversation. They also share a bond as children of immediate immigrants --Obama is the first president since Hoover to have a parent born outside the country, and only the seventh ever. 

She says it is an overlooked factor about Obama, an issue that weighed heavily with other would-be White House contenders.

“I interviewed Mario Cuomo when he was thinking of running, and everyone said he was going to run, and he was obsessed with being the son of an immigrant. It reminded me of the Aesop Fable, where the dog has the steak in his mouth and he sees the reflection of another dog with a steak and drops it. He didn’t want to drop his steak.

“He had come so far, his father was an immigrant, he was the governor of New York, and he was all twisted about his worthiness as president. It was very ethnic to me, and I was going, ‘Yes but if you don’t run, you leave the field to people like George Bush Senior, who never question their worthiness.

“I had the same conversation with Colin Powell. Again, the son of an immigrant, he had achieved so much but he wasn’t sure, he didn’t know.

“But with Obama, it’s not that. He doesn’t have that sense of ‘Am I worthy?’ I love that he says he’s a mutt.

“I thought it was sad that the poor people who raised him weren’t there for his inauguration. He’s incredibly young, but they had all passed.”

As for any Dowd criticism of Obama? “He doesn’t like being made fun of. He’s not able to bat it back like JFK could. He gets a little prickly.

“He can be a little starchy,” she adds, like when Vice President Joe Biden cracked a joke about Chief Justice John Roberts muffing the lines on the swearing in ceremony, and Obama fixed him with a cold stare,

“But this is where he’s not Irish at all, and Biden and people say he’s not sentimental at all, and in a way that’s a really good trait in a leader.  He cuts to the chase,” she says.

“Biden’s line about him is one that everybody uses about him, and it’s that he travels light, and it’s interesting because when you see him there’s no cloud around him, he’s not carrying a bunch of papers, everything is about traveling light.

“The BlackBerry was the one thing he actually kind of wanted. He has Reggie Love (his body man) who comes with the Nicorettes and cigarettes. On the campaign Reggie had cigarettes -- it was a big secret --, but I think that it’s hard to stop smoking and run for president at the same time. It’s too much.

“Yes, Obama travels light emotionally, physically. The way Gordon Brown was treated for instance. During his recent visit the British were upset, but Obama is not a sentimental person not like he’s giving that love to anyone else. Obama is very detached.

“But Americans know he is trying, trying very hard, and these are huge problems he is facing.”

As for Vice President Biden, Dowd is also a big fan.

“I love Joe Biden. I knocked him out of the race in ’88 when I reported that he plagiarized Neil Kinnock’s speeches.

“The fact that he ree-stablished a relationship with me, and before he was appointed, a friend and I had an off-the-record lunch with him, and you know, it’s an Irish thing, he was being all Irish.

“I was sitting thinking ‘If I were him I wouldn’t have me here,’ but I kind of admired his ability to move on.”

As for Obama’s predecessors Bush and Cheney, she says they “started out to be bullies to scare the world and be a hyperpower, and they accomplished that intention.”

She says the recent Oliver Stone movie about Bush got it right, that Bush did end up finally with some self-awareness that something deep had gone wrong.  In his case she says his refusal to pardon Scooter Libby despite Dick Cheney’s frantic attempts to get him one was the clear signal.

As for Poppy Bush there is no doubt that Dowd and himself retain a soft spot for each other.

“George Bush Senior has written me twice in the last week because I sent him a Christmas present. He signs his ‘love’ but then crosses out the love and say ‘not yet’ indicating he’s mad about the coverage of W. I’m sure at some level they must be disappointed too.”

She says Bush senior “must be angry” with Cheney and Rumsfeld. She says it would be hard for him not to be. W’s whole presidency, she says, was an “attempt to be the reverse of everything Bush Senior stood for.

“I can’t believe he never called his dad for advice even when going to war in Iraq.”

Maureen expresses grudging admiration for Hillary Clinton, the woman she was hyper-critical of during the campaign. She quotes Harold Ickes, a key Clinton aide, as saying that Hillary told him during the campaign, “I knew that Bill was good at what he did and it was hard to be that good, but I had no idea just how hard it was.”

Dowd said Hillary had to go through the baptism of fire to become the good politician she now is.

Dowd started a Hillary blaze in February of 2007 by revealing that David Geffen, the Hollywood record mogul and key Clinton supporter, was switching allegiances to Obama.

At the time Clinton was considered a virtual shoe-in for the Democratic nomination, but the fissures which emerged after Geffen’s comments in Dowd’s column would never close over and heal.

As Patrick Goldstein wrote subsequently in the Los Angeles Times, “When historians start looking for turning points in the trajectory of the Obama campaign for the presidency, they will inevitably turn to February 21, 2007, the day that The New York Times' Maureen Dowd ran a column where Geffen blasted then-Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“He didn't just say he disliked Hillary, he dismissed her as ‘the easiest [candidate] to beat.’

“He called Hillary overproduced and overscripted. ‘It's not a very big thing to say, 'I made a mistake' on the war, and typical of Hillary Clinton that she can't.’”

Dowd admits her interview with Geffen changed the presidential race forever, and she is grateful to Geffen for standing by his comments.

“He’s a good guy to have in a foxhole with you. Because oftentimes you get that intensity on you, I’ve had sources who were kind of shying away. He was fine,” she says.

“He just said bring it on when the controversy flared.  He didn’t back away, he didn’t say it was out of context, he just said, ‘Yep that’s what I said. That’s how it is.’”

Dowd rates Geffen as one of the few wise men left in a bleak economic landscape. Recently she asked him his opinion of the current climate.

“I was on business in Los Angeles and I had lunch with David Geffen and Oprah, and he knows a lot about money. He got out before the crash.” He said it was Joe Kennedy who got out of the stock market because he started getting stock tips from the guy shining his shoes. And he decided that’s it. “He had the same  feeling that too many people who shouldn’t have been involved were.”

She also asked him why he was the only one of his DreamWorks studio partners -- Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg the others -- not to get caught up in the Madoff scandal, and Geffen said simply because the two others did not call him.

“So he called them and he said, ‘Why didn’t you give me that tip? I would have told you not to do it, but you didn’t give me that tip.’”

Geffen, she reports, believes America may be in recession for up to 10 years.

Typically, Dowd has caught the zeitgeist moment in her columns on the financial scandals. She describes her recent columns attacking the crew on the ship of fools that ran the economy aground as inspired by her sense of “Irish class rage” against those that set themselves up as superior.

For decades, she says, many like her felt they were not part of that charmed circle that lived high and made fast money or were able to crack the secret code.

Now, like in Oz, the wizards of Wall Street are revealed as frauds, and Maureen Dowd is the first to skewer them and their pretensions.

You can see her mother and father’s values of hard work and disapproval of greed for greed’s sake.

She was intrigued that Obama’s Irish ancestors hail from a town called Moneygall in Co. Offaly. Immediately she began, as she always does, playing around with the word.

“That’s what this crisis is all about,” she said. “Money and the gall of people and how they treated it.”  

She also wants to go to Moneygall if and when Obama ever makes the trip to discover his Irish roots. Along the way, if the Irish 1911 census finally comes online for County Clare, she hopes to visit the graves of the ancestors who came before.

Her father, the young man who didn’t take the Titanic but embarked on a mighty journey himself that left him standing next to president’s, and the mother whose sense of decency and commitment to causes made her stand apart, would undoubtedly approve. In the end it’s about family for Maureen and Peggy.

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