“We don’t see you as The New York Times," President George H. Bush’s pollster Robert Teeter told Maureen Dowd, newly appointed White House correspondent at the newspaper soon after he took office in 1989.
“We see you more at a newspaper like the New York Daily News or the Chicago Tribune.” Dowd, shocked, responded. “You mean because I’m a woman with an ethnic working class background?”
“Yes,” was Teeter’s blunt reply.
They would soon learn to eat those words. The red-haired Irish woman, daughter of an Irish-born cop and a beloved Irish American mother, was not so easily stereotyped.
She became, quite simply, the most influential journalist in America.
She recalls that extraordinary moment in “The Year of Voting Dangerously,” her new book of great columns, original insights, especially into the Bush family and a few family contributors thrown in.
Despite Teeter’s put-down, she quickly became the must-read reporter at The Times and, later, a savage and hilarious columnist. She spared no one but always managed to engage the reader.
She wields the most influential pen in Washington still. Ask George W., who called her “Cobra,” or Hillary Clinton, who nightly probably sticks pins in a Maureen voodoo doll. Donald Trump just attacked her on Twitter, a badge of honor.
She skewered friend and foe alike, but also managed, at times, to be compassionate and caring and always wore her Irish heart on her sleeve. She wrote some of the best American columns on Gerry Adams and the peace process and is a frequent visitor to Ireland, accompanied by her charge d'affaires, her sister Peggy, who adds in a darn good column in this book as does her brother Kevin, a Trump loyalist.
She has lots of columns about Trump Agonistes in the book, even going back to his toying with a run in a previous presidential election. She acknowledges she found him a breath of fresh air at the beginning, but as his stances darkened she pivoted away from him.
She now has that claim to fame that Trump attacked her through his Twitter account.
She also has the helping hand. I learned this from personal experience when we started our sister publication Irish America Magazine in the late 1980s. We were struggling as all new publications do, when one day an apparition – tall, red-haired and gorgeous – appeared at our grimy second floor office over a Turkish carpet store.
It was Maureen. Stunning as always, she proceeded to write a story on the changing face of the Irish in New York, heavily mentioning Irish America Magazine. We never looked back and have remained friends since.
I was with her in Northern Ireland for Bill Clinton’s historic 1995 visit, which she declared as the greatest days of his presidency, a sentiment Clinton acknowledges to this day after watching the peace process take hold.
Her relationship with George Bush Senior is perhaps the most interesting part of the new book. Despite glaring differences of opinion, Bush Senior needles her in affectionate notes claiming, “I like you don’t tell anyone” and pleads with her humorously “Please be kinder and gentler to the Bush family” when his son screwed up.
There is an extraordinary part where she analyses the relationship between presidents 41 and 43, revealing just how much 43 wanted out of his dad’s shadow. But after the Iraq debacle 43 realized the old man, who through surrogates had sounded the warning, was right after all.
The Hillary Clinton columns are inevitably hostile and Hillary is said to have once used an epithet against her that was felt very deeply. Maureen never forgets!
But there is one charming interlude where she reproduces word for word some of Hillary’s e- mails.
Dowd recounts how Hillary turned up for a meeting on the wrong day, how she was unable to use what was then the new fangled fax, or how Hillary struggled to find National Public Radio on her car radio. Hillary actually comes across, as a slightly dotty, very likeable human being, struggling with the modern era like all older folks tend to do.
This book is a breezy read which also showcases the Jane Austen facility with language and the comedy of manners that Dowd has in abundance. The Irish are known for storytelling.
She remains one of the greatest.