Dissecting Maureen Dowd's Obama hit piece

That was the unflattering takeaway from Maureen Dowd's catty column (subscription required) last week about the Illinois senator's foray onto the presidential campaign trail, as Dowd traipsed out to the heartland to watch the Democratic sensation up close. But as is her custom, Dowd fixated on personality and stagecraft, not substance, as the poison-penned, Wednesday/Saturday columnist for The New York Times painted a relentlessly unflattering portrait of the senator.

As a campaigner, Sen. Barack Obama is angry and overwhelmed.

That was the unflattering takeaway from Maureen Dowd's catty column (subscription required) last week about the Illinois senator's foray onto the presidential campaign trail, as Dowd traipsed out to the heartland to watch the Democratic sensation up close. But as is her custom, Dowd fixated on personality and stagecraft, not substance, as the poison-penned, Wednesday/Saturday columnist for The New York Times painted a relentlessly unflattering portrait of the senator.

In the eyes of Dowd, Obama was out of his element on the national stage: “testy,” “irritated,” and “conflicted.”

Dowd's attack, hyped on the Drudge Report the night before the column was published and widely seen as the first real Obama hit piece of the season by a major pundit, deserves attention not because of the (largely nonexistent) insight Dowd shed on Obama's emerging candidacy, but because Dowd included several of her now-trademark -- and highly dubious -- attacks; attacks that in the past have been embraced by the mainstream press and tripped up Democrats such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

The truth is, almost nothing about the Obama column rang true. In part, because Dowd provided virtually no evidence to back up her contentious claims that Obama was “testy,” “irritated,” and “conflicted” while campaigning in Iowa.

What unleashed Dowd's wrath? Perhaps a career cynic like Dowd is put off by Obama's audacity-of-hope message. That, and her contrarian impulse to bash Obama when most others were not. But it appears the senator's specific sin in Iowa was that he publicly tweaked the press, and particularly the media buzz created when People magazine recently ran a candid, shirtless photo of Obama vacationing on a Hawaii beach. “You've been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit,” Obama noted.

Rule Number 1: Celebrity Beltway journalists don't like to be upstaged in public; especially not by newcomers. Just ask Howard Dean, who, when declaring his presidential candidacy on June 23, 2003, asked rhetorically, “Is the media reporting the truth?” Not smart. The press corps quickly labeled Dean an angry kook. (In two profiles of Dean published during the summer of 2003, The Washington Post alternately described Dean as being “abrasive,” “flinty,” “cranky,” “arrogant,” “disrespectful,” “yelling,” “hollering,” “fiery,” “red-faced,” “hothead,” “testy,” “short-fused,” “angry,” and “worked up.” )

Although political journalism is broken (its flaws are glaringly obvious), candidates, and especially Democratic candidates, are not allowed to question the competence of pundits and reporters. Dowd in her column sternly rebuked Obama and reminded him who sets the campaign rules -- it ain't the candidates.

Here's a quick dissection of Dowd's snarky column (headline: “Obama, Legally Blonde?” ) that highlights her dubious assertions.

  • “He was a tad testy.” Dowd gave no examples to back up her characterization.
  • “The 45-year-old had moments of looking conflicted.” Dowd offered no clear examples of Obama looking conflicted.
  • “In the lobby of the AmericInn in Iowa Falls on Saturday night, he seemed a bit dazed by his baptism into the big-time. He was left munching trail mix all day while, he said, ” the press got fed before me." Obama's utterly trivial remark about the press getting fed first in no way suggested that he seemed a bit dazed.
  • “Everything was a revelation for him: The advance team acronym RON, or Rest Overnight. Women squealing. 'I saw a hat,' he noted with a grin, 'that said, 'Obama, clean and articulate.' ” Obama's utterly trivial remark about a woman wearing an Obama hat in no way suggested that everything was a revelation for the senator.
  • “Senator Obama's body language was loose.” Dowd was reduced to interpreting Obama's body language for vague insights.
  • “He was eloquent, if not as inspiring as his advance billing had prepared audiences to expect.” Dowd produced no examples of the type of “advance billing” Obama failed to live up to. (And whose advance billing was it, Dowd's?)
  • “He sounded self-consciously pristine at times, as if he was too refined for the muck of politics.” Dowd offered no examples to bolster either vague claim that Obama was “pristine” or “too refined.”
  • “But his friends say it played into this Harvard grad's fear of being seen as 'a dumb blond.' " Dowd provided no quotes from any of Obama's friends to confirm her claim. Also, note “dumb blond” appears in quotes, even though the words are Dowd's and nobody else's.
  • “He has been known to privately mock 'pretty boys' (read John Edwards, the Breck Girl of 2004).” Dowd provided no information to back up her blind quote that Obama mocks “pretty boys,” and specifically Edwards.
  • “He's so hung up on being seen as thoughtful that he sometimes comes across as too emotionally detached and cerebral with crowds yearning for an electric, visceral connection.” Dowd offered no examples to bolster her claim about Obama.
  • “When The Times's Jeff Zeleny asked him on his plane whether he'd had a heater in his podium during his announcement speech in subzero Springfield [Illinois], Mr. Obama hesitated. He shot Jeff a look that said, 'Are you from People magazine?' before conceding that, unlike Abe Lincoln, he'd had a heater.” Once again, in order to make her point Dowd opted to interpret Obama's body language. In this case, what a brief look from the candidate “said.” (Note that the trivial question at hand dealt with stagecraft: Did Obama have a heater? Who cares?)

Contrast Dowd's nitpicking account of Obama's campaign swing through Iowa with The Washington Post's factual report that Obama “calmly” answered questions at his Iowa press conference. And according to a February 11 dispatch from Iowa's Des Moines Register:

After shedding his suit jacket, Obama sat on a stool for a relaxed question-and-answer session that touched on improving education, enlarging federal grants for college students, raising teacher pay, insuring those who have no health care, lowering health care costs for all Americans, ending poverty, dealing with global warming, and ending the country's dependence on foreign oil through the development of alternative fuels.

Dowd though, dismissed Obama's detailed discussion of the issues. Indeed, Dowd long ago signaled that she had little interest in voter concerns. When candidate Al Gore met with New York Times columnists and editorial writers in June 2000, Dowd complained how boring Gore was as he went on in great detail about federal surpluses (remember those?), Social Security, and global warming. Dowd, a political columnist for the Times, had no interest in any of that.

Then again, why would she bother with the details? She's been professionally rewarded for her decision to do as little legwork as possible for her column. (Watching Oprah now qualifies as research for Dowd.) Dowd is treated with utmost respect within elite media circles specifically because she refuses to take politics seriously. (In late 2005, New York magazine crowned Dowd “the most dangerous columnist in America,” and devoted roughly 6,000 words to profiling her.)

With her purposefully casual approach to punditry, Dowd is basically telling readers to trust her: “Obama on the campaign trail was testy and overwhelmed, trust me.” The problem is Dowd has established a record of being untrustworthy, particularly when painting unflattering portraits of prominent Democrats. (I realize Dowd has been quite critical of the Bush White House, but just because she smears Republicans and Democrats alike, that doesn't mean her approach to journalism is right.)

For instance, when the Clintons were leaving the White House in early 2001 Dowd fueled a media frenzy by accusing them of cashing in on their exit by having their wealthy friends lavish them with expensive, last-minute housewarming gifts. ( “Tainted loot,” Dowd called it.) It was a gift-giving spree designed specifically to cut ethical corners, according to Dowd, who eviscerated Hillary Clinton over the phony flap: “The junior senator from New York has terribly flawed judgment. And her sense of entitlement knows no bounds.”

Actually, what the controversy proved was that Dowd rarely let the facts get in the way of a good smear.

Here's how Dowd framed the case against the Clintons:

There were lists of Hillary's china and silver patterns, available at Borsheim's in Omaha and other stores. Time was of the essence because Hillary, who had been elected to the Senate, could take expensive gifts only until she was sworn in and the Senate gift ban went into effect.

Neither key fact was accurate. Hillary Clinton never listed her china and silver patterns at Borsheim's (or, registered “like a bride,” as Dowd also claimed in print). Clinton denied the fact and so did Borsheim's. As for the allegation that Clinton was trying to make an end run around the Senate gift ban (which suggested the Clintons were both greedy and unethical), Dowd had almost none of the facts right.

Yes, as the new senator from New York, Clinton would be prohibited from accepting gifts valued at more than $50. But according to the Senate Ethics Manual, “The Gifts Rule contains 23 exceptions: The following gifts are expressly excluded from the Rule's limitations: ... 4) anything ... provided by an individual on the basis of a personal friendship.”

Most of the controversial gifts given to the Clintons would have fit that “personal friendship” waiver, which meant there was no rush. The Gifts Rule also contained another relevant exception: spouses. In other words, friends would have been free to buy expensive housewarming gifts for Bill Clinton long after Hillary became senator, as long as she asked for waivers based on the spouse exemption.

Fast-forward to 2004, when Dowd was busy mocking John Kerry as an overstuffed, phony elitist, which just happened to be the same negative narrative the GOP was peddling at the time. Dowd informed readers that while at a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Kerry, desperate to connect with working class Americans, uncorked this comically overwrought question: “Who among us doesn't like NASCAR?”

According to Dowd, Kerry's laughable statement came “across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet's pretentious cousin in 'Pride and Prejudice' ” (or Gilligan's Island's Thurston Howell III), and lots of Times readers likely rolled their eyes in agreement. Dowd later peddled the killer Kerry quote during a television appearance.

Dowd was the first journalist to report Kerry's embarrassing NASCAR gaffe, even though Dowd herself was not at the Milwaukee rally. Instead, she learned about the quote from Times colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who was covering Kerry on the campaign trail. But it turned out that the quote was a fake. According to tape recordings of the Milwaukee speech, Kerry never said, “Who among us doesn't like NASCAR” ? Dowd though, never conceded the fact that she had manufactured an unflattering quote and attributed it to a Democratic presidential candidate.

During his recent campaigning in Iowa, Obama gave a concise answer when asked who his most important rival in the campaign is: “I would say it's cynicism.” According to The Des Moines Register, “That was greeted with loud applause from the overflow crowd.”

Dowd never reported that back-and-forth; she was too busy interpreting Obama's body language. Then again, if cynicism is Obama's most important rival, then pundits like Dowd now qualify as the competition.