Maureen Dowd doesn’t like any sort of fighting.
She’s been a thorn in the side to two presidents over 10 years – her critiques are typically described as “eviscerating” and “blistering” – but the New York Times op-ed writer said that conflict and confrontation don’t come naturally to her.
“My dad, when I was little, if he would say anything at the dinner table at all critical, I just couldn’t take it,” remembered Dowd, good-humoredly “I couldn’t even stay at the table. I’d run up to my room.
“And then he’d make fun of me for not being able to take it,” she told the Echo in an interview. “He was always trying to toughen me up.
“Mom and I are more brooders. We don’t like to have big fights. My sister and my dad really enjoy them,” said Dowd, who also has three brothers.
In this instance, she referred to her parents in the present tense, though her father Mike, an immigrant from County Clare who became an inspector in the Washington D.C. police department, died in the early 1970s, while her mother Peggy passed away in July at age 97. Dowd was at the time of the earlier death, by her own account, a still timid 19-year-old.
“I was very shy. I still am very shy,” she said.
A little more than 20 years on, she was offered one of journalism’s most coveted platforms, a twice-weekly op-ed column in the New York Times. Already established as the paper’s White House correspondent, only the second woman to hold that job, she was considered not just smart and funny, but attractive and seductively charming, too.
However, she didn’t believe she was “temperamentally suited” to the position that Anna Quindlen was vacating. She still doesn’t.
“On the other hand, once I have a job, I am going to try and make it work — if it is in my power to make it work,” said Dowd, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for commentary on Clinton’s troubles and has just published her second book, “Are Men Necessary?”
As for any awkwardness or tension that might result from her opinions, she said: “It really doesn’t matter because I don’t really go out that much. I don’t want to be friends with any politicians.”
Nonetheless, she’s said to be widely liked. A writer of a recent New York magazine cover story about Dowd reported: “Something that nearly every person I spoke to about her mentioned, unprompted, is that men can’t resist her.” It cited her rapport with the first President Bush, describing how his eyes “lit up” when he spotted her at a launch party for a book of his. That was a few years ago, but he still emails her, the piece reported.
That George W. Bush privately calls her “the cobra,” she has said, doesn’t bother her, nor is she troubled by the better-known “flame-haired flamethrower.”
In her columns, which she thinks of as political cartoons, Dowd calls the president simply “W,” the vice president is “Vice,” while the secretary of defense is “Rummy.”
She described as “my most prized possession” a vintage watch given to her by cartoonists Garry Trudeau, Mike Lukovich and Walt Handelsman.
“I love it to death,” she said. “I love that political cartoonists think of me as one of their gang.”
A free press is an essential part of the process, Dowd said. Power corrupts and politicians become deaf, especially in the White House.
“That’s why the system of checks and balances is really important,” she said.
Dowd doesn’t rank presidents, even if on occasion she might compare one unfavorably to another.
“I deal with them day by day, event by event and week by week. I’m not a partisan columnist,” she said.
She added: “I’m just following the narrative of how we got into the Iraq war.
“The public is starting to realize that they took an old agenda about going into Iraq and linked it falsely to 9/11. To me it’s mostly motored by Dick Cheney,” said Dowd, who in a recent much-publicized column was critical of her now former Times colleague Judith Miller.
On the latest controversy about U.S. involvement in torture, she said. “I just think a lot of these things are not how Americans see themselves.”
Despite her relatively modest background, Dowd grew up in a family that had plenty of political connections. Her father was head of security in the Senate for 20 years. And before that, Mike Dowd’s niece, the columnist’s much older first cousin, also named Peggy, was secretary to one of FDR’s top lieutenants during the New Deal era. She was picked from a typing pool because she was Irish; it was thought she might be able to handle the notoriously gruff Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. She could, it turned out, and the brilliant Harvard Law graduate, who was also a key figure in the early career of Lyndon Johnson, fell for and eventually married her.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, though, didn’t approve of the immigrant mailman’s daughter, and this, Dowd family legend has it, might have had far-reaching consequences for American politics.
“They wanted him to marry someone rich and have a political career,” Dowd said. On the day of their marriage, the Corcorans visited the White House, but after waiting more than two hours, it was apparent that the president and his wife had no intention of greeting them. “Corcoran was furious and later claimed that the incident contributed to his decision to leave public service,” writes David McKean in “Peddling Influence: Thomas ‘Tommy the Cork’ Corcoran and the Birth of Modern Lobbying.’
The future New York Times journalist worked summers as a student at Corcoran’s powerful law firm, though by this time his wife had passed away, and so had his daughter, a young lawyer. At Mike Dowd’s funeral, Corcoran approached his widow with a proposal: he wanted to adopt Maureen Dowd. “My mother said, ‘No way!'” she recalled.
If the Dowds, who dropped the traditional “O” after their arrival in America, were linked by marriage to the man who invented lobbying as we know it, they’ve also looked at the possibility that they’re related by blood to Boy George (O’Dowd). And it’s not implausible given that the parents of the 1980s pop star were born in County Tipperary, next door to County Clare.
“But we’ve never traced it,” said the Times columnist, adding: “There is a little family resemblance there, but only when he has makeup on.”
Maureen Dowd has rather more tangible ties to another icon of the Irish diaspora — JFK. Her father knew the future president through his work with the Hibernians and in the Senate, and she now lives in a townhouse he occupied in the early 1950s.
Though not as famous as the one he shared with his wife later, it’s still listed in some Washington guides. “I came down recently and I found this small Japanese woman wandering around in my living room. She thought it was a museum; I had to tell her it was just my house,” Dowd said, laughing.
Mike Dowd was also friendly with Barry Goldwater, who told him if he was elected president he would appoint the Irish policeman head of White House security.
“So then we all became Goldwater Republicans,” she said.
But that was temporary. Only with Reagan did members of the Dowd family embrace the GOP. “My mother voted, I think, for Jimmy Carter, but she loved Ronald Reagan,” Dowd said.
Peggy Meenihan was born to immigrant parents from County Mayo in 1908. The Washington bar manager’s daughter, who did one year at law school, applied to become a reporter with the Post in 1926. She was told it was no job for a “nice young lady.”
A half-century on, her youngest child was told at a “family intervention” she should aspire to something more than a job at the Washington Hilton tennis club. She had, after all, majored in English on a scholarship at Catholic University.
Things had changed for women, clearly, but how much is one of the questions that Dowd asks in the new book.
She says in its introduction: “I possess no special wisdom about redemption in matters of sex and love. I am not peddling a theory or a slogan or a policy.”
Nor, she added in interview, was it about her. “”People think I’m whining about my personal life, I’m not. I have a great personal life,” she said.
Peggy Dowd wanted her to call it “Why Men Are Necessary.”
“She didn’t want to scare them, because she loved them so much and I told her I loved them too,” she said.
“She was man’s woman,” her youngest child recalled. “She would light up when any of my brothers would come over.
“Oftentimes, my sister and I would be there and she’d be like ‘Isn’t anyone coming over today? And we’d be like: ‘We’re here.’
“But she was also a fantastic woman’s woman,” Dowd added.
“She had a great time married to my father, raising five kids, and then when he died, she had a great time traveling around the world with her girlfriends,” Dowd remembered.
Arthur Gelb, her former Times colleague, has said her mother was “the source, the fountain of Maureen’s humor and her Irish sensibilities and her intellectual take.”
Dowd agreed that both could occasionally be fatalistic. Her mother combined a sunny optimism with a sardonic wit.
“And to me that mix is very Irish,” she said.
Peggy Dowd had many enthusiasms — Oscar Wilde was one and Irish history, another. “She loved Michael Collins,” Dowd said.
On a visit to Ireland with her husband, she insisted on visiting Collins’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. Mike Dowd, because of his Clare origins, his daughter said, “was more of a de Valera man.”
While her mother’s journalism career stopped before it began, she was a prodigious letter-writer, and contributed a column to the National Hibernian Digest.
“And he loved newspapers,” Dowd said of her father, who she believes is smiling down on her.
“He would have loved to have seen me learn to fight back, to hold my own better. I never learned it while he was alive.”