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Says the town crier of 'Bushworld': All is not well

Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk; Maureen Dowd; Putnam: 524 pp., $25.95

August 06, 2004|Patt Morrison | Times Staff Writer


Enter at Your Own Risk

Maureen Dowd

Putnam: 524 pp., $25.95


Yikes, what a job -- working in the crosshairs of D.C.'s big guns. The constant scrutiny, the nasty comments, the furious accusations.

Who, Dubya? I don't mean the president -- although the occupant of that job has also been known to give and take hits now and then, some of the latter from the person I am talking about: Maureen Dowd, political columnist for the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
"Bushworld" -- A book review in Friday's Calendar section of "Bushworld" by Maureen Dowd said Dowd was criticized for not using an ellipsis when she shortened a quotation by President Bush in one of her columns. Dowd used an ellipsis to indicate that the quotation had been altered. Critics had said that omitting the words in the quotation had changed the president's meaning.

Within certain ZIP codes of the bookend coasts, Dowd's name must be about as familiar as those of people she microtomes in print -- Cheney and "Rummy" and others in her cast of characters. For almost 10 years, her twice-weekly column has been "appointment journalism" for readers who expect to roar with laughter or with rage, depending on whose Gore is getting oxed. (I don't know whether she's used that particular word-toggle or not, but it's the kind of Dowdian trompe of language she's fond of.)

"Bushworld" is the name of her collected columns, and the title column is an example of Dowd at her more restrained and most effective. "It's their reality. We just live and die in it," she begins. "In Bushworld, our troops go to war and get killed, but you never see the bodies coming home" -- and so on, a list of trenchant contrasts of conservative policies versus practices. The facts are already out there, but her juxtapositions, and the starkness of language, persuade with quiet authority. In her best work, Dowd makes her points, not her prose, the star of her work.

A column is a means of leveraging reportage into a judgment, furthering some understanding by connecting factual dots into a pattern in a way that a news reporter cannot -- or, in this timid day and age, isn't allowed to do. Metaphor, simile, parable -- all hang from the columnist's tool belt.

You can disagree with Dowd's conclusions -- and many do: Nasty nicknames like "Moron Dud" have surfaced on the Web. Conservatives waved "Ellipsis-Gate" around like the bride's bloody sheet as proof that Dowd, that pinko, was up to no good. This was last year, after she shortened a Bush quote in her column, changing some of the emphasis of the remarks without using an ellipsis to signal that she had done so.

Dowd is not one to shrink from name-calling. Does she, you wonder, write on a computer, or a Ronco Slicer and Dicer? She spanked the Clintons so regularly that they must have thought that for every White House action there was an equal and opposite Dowd reaction. Al Gore, she wrote, is "so feminized ... he's practically lactating." But she has more seriously railed against the perils of "Bushworld," sounding the tocsin in columns both substantive and disturbing about the toxic policies of the "Kennebunkport Corleones," a family bent on "ambition, partisanship, political debts and revenge." The Bushes "are always gracious, until they need to go ugly."

Good Dowd can balance substance and sizzle and still be acidulous and funny, drawing righteous blood with tongue still stuck in cheek like a Tootsie Roll Pop. (To the bloggers who think writing this stuff is as easy as passing gas, it's actually very hard to pull off. You can't frost the cake until you've baked it; you can't write a solid column about the news until you've covered it, from zoning board hearings to obituaries to murder trials.)

Good Dowd allows herself to get truly indignant about some wrongdoing. Bad Dowd is just popping political bubble-wrap to see how loud a noise it will make -- and who will turn around to look.

In her fondness for snappy Madison Avenue glibness, Dowd can strive so hard for a punch line that she can lose her way, and her point, in such prose echolalia as "The world's in a swirl," and "The president can't skirt the issues by hiding behind Laura's skirts forever."

Her gig may be the most coveted journalistic real estate in the world. (For the record, the only frisson of envy I had was reading in her book's acknowledgments her thanks to her assistant. She has an assistant?! I have to make six calls to find out who can replace the fluorescent bulb in my desk lamp!)

But she covers the claustrophobic N.Y.-D.C. power circuit, which is like being stuck on a model train: the same tedious route over and over, the same changeless scenery, the same incestuous figurines simply changing uniforms. Dowd has earned her own place on that landscape: Bush I wrote about her into a little "comic screed" as Lady Maureen, the "charming princess" of the Times' op-ed world. Bush II's nickname for her, she hears, is "The Cobra," of which she writes the groaner, "I was a major-league asp."

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