Maureen Dowd's Daisy Chain

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

DowdFor the fifth time, Maureen Dowd recycled an inapt literary analogy comparing Bill and Hillary Clinton to the characters Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in her July 31 New York Times column.

The comparison has its origins in the phony Whitewater scandal in the mid-1990s, a period when much of the Washington press corps, including the Times, fell prey to an anti-Clinton fever that began with the Clintons' political enemies in the right-wing. Numerous independent investigations, several helmed by Republicans, found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons related to the decades-old land deal, yet the faulty characterization, which originated with columnist Joe Klein, author of a fictional anti-Clinton book, lives on at the Times 18 years later.

Klein's August 6, 1995, column for Newsweek focused on the Senate's Whitewater hearings, which he described as a "scavenger hunt through a sewer" that exposed "the perverse ways of this administration." He concluded with a description of "the most disturbing Whitewater 'revelation'":

It is about the character of the Clintons. They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite. The Buchanans, you may recall, were E Scott Fitzgerald's brilliant crystallization of flapper fecklessness in "The Great Gatsby." They were "careless" people. They smashed up lives and didn't notice. After two years, it's become difficult to avoid a distinguishing characteristic of this administration: the body count. Too many lives and reputations have been ruined by carelessness, too many decent people have been forced to walk the plank for trivialities, appearances, changes of mind. Whitewater has been the worst of it. 

Four days later, Dowd would pick up the analogy in her Times column:

As with Presidents Nixon and Reagan, the landscape is littered with aides taking the fall. As Joe Klein wrote of the Clintons in Newsweek: "They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite. . . . They smashed up lives and didn't notice. . . . How could the First Lady allow her chief of staff to spend $140,000 on legal fees? Why hasn't she come forward and said . . . 'I'll testify.' "

Dowd returned to the analogy in her March 14, 1996, column:

Four years of frenzied digging into Whitewater -- all the investigative reporting, all the Congressional hearings, all the work by the independent counsel, all the midnight oil of pundits, and now a new book, "Blood Sport," by a journalistic gumshoe, James B. Stewart -- lead to the same conclusion.

[...]

As though Pat and Bay Buchanan were not enough, "Blood Sport" reaffirms the portrait of the Clintons as Tom and Daisy Buchanan -- careless about using people, reckless about the rules.

Dowd made the comparison yet again in her July 21, 1996, column:

In May 1994, the love affair ended abruptly when Mr. Klein wrote a story called "The Politics of Promiscuity." He now found Mr. Clinton not bionic, but boorish. He had come to see the Clintons as the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of politics, a careless couple who expected others to clean up their messes. He said the President's "wanton affability leads, inevitably, to misunderstandings. It forces him to finagle, which he does brilliantly. It leads to a rhetorical promiscuity, the reckless belief that he can talk anyone into anything (or, more to the point, that he can talk his way out of anything), that he can seduce and abandon, at will and without consequence."

The analogy would next appear, curiously enough, attributed to Dowd in a Boston Globe profile of Klein later that month:

Instead of a scrap of melody, Klein had produced an aria, a great and moving song of politics that soared above the impressions that all the other pundits were seeking to create. Take the next-best characterization of the Clintons, which probably is that of Maureen Dowd, the wickedly funny columnist of The New York Times: She has described the Clintons as "the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of politics, a careless couple who expected other people to clean up their messes."

As impeachment fever swept Washington, DC, in 1998 and 1999, the analogy was revived, highlighted by Clinton critics on the New York Times editorial board, columnists Jacob Weisberg, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Greenberg, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, and by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward in his book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate:

But Mrs. Clinton's scandal-managing role continued. By the summer of 1995, Whitewater was causing her real anguish. In Newsweek that August, Joe Klein wrote that the scandal had exposed the character of the Clintons. "They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite." The Buchanans were the 1920s-style careless people of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

"They smashed up lives and didn't notice," Klein wrote.

The Fitzgerald analogy went dormant for a few years after that while Hillary Clinton was twice elected to the Senate. But on January 2, 2008, during Clinton's presidential run, Dowd used it twice in her column, no longer attributing it to Klein: 

 Has Hillary truly changed, and grown from her mistakes? Has she learned to be less stubborn and imperious and secretive and vindictive and entitled? Or has she merely learned to mask her off-putting and self-sabotaging qualities better? If elected, would the old Hillary pop up, dragging us back to the dysfunctional Clinton kingdom? She is speaking in a soft, measured voice in these final days, so that, as with Daisy Buchanan, you have to lean in to listen. But is she really different than she was in the years when she was so careless about the people around her getting hurt by the Clinton legal whirlwind that she was dubbed the Daisy Buchanan of the boomer set?

Which brings us to today, when Dowd again unearthed the tired analogy with no credit to Klein:

[Anthony] Weiner continues to play the rebel without a pause. He shrugged off reports that the Clintons, who have been christened the careless Daisy and Tom Buchanan of politics, regard him, in the words of F. Scott, as the foul dust floating in the wake of their dreams.

Posted In
The Presidency & White House, The Senate
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Person
Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd
Stories/Interests
Hillary Clinton
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.