Maureen Dowd, I have a confession. I know the “scheduling conflict” you used at the last minute to push our lunch back one hour was a hair appointment at your hotel.
The glamorous New York Times columnist who arrived at Cafe Sydney in a flowing dress and red locks was, just an hour before, wearing purple active wear and a boxy red top.
I know the hotel well, and watched her arrive at Sebastian Salon, which specialises in coiffure for the eastern suburb’s finest. Without makeup, the 66-year-old was practically naked.
I don’t have the guts to tell Dowd, over our fish and chicken lunch, that she was sprung. But how could I keep her (not so dirty) secret from readers? To do so would be hypocritical – unDowd-like.
Dowd isn’t into food. She recently dined at Noma in Copenhagen, which some gourmands regard as the best restaurant in the world. “Twenty-one courses – my idea of hell,” she says.
But when it comes to politicians, she is a connoisseur. Dowd became one of the great political columnists of her generation – perhaps of any American generation – through brutal, laugh-out-loud take downs of the rich, powerful and egotistical.
In an industry that prided itself, sometimes inordinately, on high-minded analysis of politics and policy, Dowd pioneered politicians-as-personalities coverage. She wrote what many reporters thought and were too afraid to say, and did it with a New York directness and verve.
“Al Gore is so feminised and diversified and ecologically correct, he’s practically lactating,” still makes me smile, 19 years later. Dick Cheney’s “Darth Vader” was such a perfect fit the vice president adopted the moniker himself. (Bush called him Vice.) “After running as a man last time around, Hillary Clinton is now running as a woman,” might help explain why Clinton thought the Times was out to get her.
The second Dowd sits down, without a glance at the panoramic harbour view and Harry Triguboff on her right, an anecdote about a golf-playing Dan Quail keeping the prime minister of Singapore waiting tumbles out. She orders a Diet Coke and asserts Donald Trump has the very American drink on-call in the Oval.
On her third trip to Australia, she’s suffering jet lag and sleeping two to three hours a night. The Ambiens are giving her weird dreams. In one, a dingo took Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg’s baby, which he had entrusted to Dowd, who is notorious for losing stuff. (Like Dowd, Goldberg is a Washington print-media celebrity.)
I’m torn: can I interrupt the fascinating political gossip and coax Dowd to order a drink? She has a television appearance in a few hours, on friend Julia Baird’s ABC chat show, and is wary of adding alcohol to the mix.
Dowd admits to using Xanax to get through TV interviews. Indiscreetly, I mention that Baird, sister of an ex-NSW premier, is one of Sydney’s most eligible women.
“In the world!” she says. “The guys in the newsroom in New York get up in the middle of the night for her. They don’t do that for their wives.”
She means some New York Times journalists are willing to appear live on The Drum, which is broadcast between 1am and 3am New York time. Baird, who worked in New York, later confirms she calls in favours to get Times reporters on air early the morning.
I grab a waiter’s eye and Dowd agrees to a “buttery chardonnay”. I order riesling, which is rapidly depleted. The chardonnay and Diet Coke are mostly untouched. Is Dowd playing with me?
Dowd is a Washington native whose father was a police inspector on the city’s force. She started out in journalism as an editorial assistant on a now-defunct paper and was made The New York Times‘ Washington correspondent in 1986.
Her writing took a while to catch on. After six months on the White House beat, she found out that George H.W. Bush had showered with his dog, Millie. It was her first big story on the paper. She pioneered asking politicians about their cultural interests. George W. Bush answered baseball.
The brutal portrayals of the Clintons during the Whitewater scandal confused a lot of readers. Wasn’t the Times meant to be a pro-Democrats’ paper? Who is this woman to mock the president? What’s with the attitude, anyway?
Her columns have appeared weekly or fortnightly pretty much ever since, even after she moved to The New York Times Magazine as a features writer four years ago.
After the relative calm of the Obama presidency (some would say stillness), Washington political reporters and commentators hit pay dirt on Trump. Dowd was one of the few journalists in town who knew Trump fairly well.
In 2016 Dowd went on CNN at 9am on a Saturday to promote a book. “I thought ‘oh my gosh, no one is going to see this because no one is watching cable TV at that time’,” she says.
She called Trump a hypocrite for criticising Clinton’s infidelities.
Sure enough, Trump had the TV on. Dowd was a whacky, neurotic dope, he tweeted.
At a reception after Trump became president, Dowd ran into Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law. He offered advice on repairing the relationship. “I think you could get back in his good graces with a nice column and two nice tweets or two nice columns and a tweet,” Kushner said, according to Dowd.
“That’s not going to happen,” Dowd says she replied.
The suggestion encapsulated the fundamental challenge of political commentary: the sometimes-inverse relationship between honesty and access.
The problem was illustrated in a book this year by one of Dowd’s proteges, Amy Chozick, called Chasing Hillary. Chozick describes years of frustrating reporting on Hillary Clinton, who ignored or rejected almost 100 interview requests and basically made her work life miserable because she hated the press and thought the Times was out to get her.
Dowd mentions Clinton’s decision to stay at the Plaza on election night, even though there are cheaper, more convenient and union-staffed hotels in New York.
Chozick took a little while to work out why. Then she realised: Clinton likes fancy hotels.
Dowd, who says she is “obsessed” with Chozick’s book, mentions one of the slogans the Clinton campaign considered for the presidential campaign: It’s her turn. The phrase is so leaden with entitlement that I just look at Dowd and raise my eyebrows.
Chozick and other similar writers are the inheritors of Dowd’s legacy. Sophisticated snark journalism hasn’t caught on in Australian newspapers (perhaps with the exception of this paper’s Joe Aston), where political commentary often veers from self-righteous to self-important.
Even often-sharp political writers such as David Marr, Annabel Crabb and Katherine Murphy are still political insiders. Malcolm Turnbull referred to Murphy by her Twitter handle.
I ask Dowd what her relationship is like with Bill Clinton, who she believes could have helped Al Gore and Hillary become president if they had listened to his advice. “I lost my ability interview him 20 years ago,” she says.
It must be well after 2pm and we haven’t ordered. Dowd asks me what’s good. After an eight-year Cafe Sydney absence I bluff. “Try the fish,” I say.
Dowd finds oysters too slimy so we skip entrees, which always confuses Americans because that’s what they call mains. She orders the salmon and I a tuna dish cooked with olives. The waiter is confused. I’m confused he’s confused.
Even though the tuna is listed at $32 on a supplementary menu, it is a starter. There is an awkward moment of indecision.
Dowd suggests I order two tunas, which is kind of unusual. Needing to quickly resolve the impasse, I ask for the chicken, which I remembered came with prosciutto or something that sounded interesting.
I regret my bland choice the instant the plate arrives. I steer the conversation back to Trump. Dowd could do Trump talk for hours. She starts at the beginning of the Republican primaries.
“I think what no one remembers about the Trump campaign was that it was a joke of a campaign and no-one wanted to work for him so he had the dregs,” she says.
“When he appointed Paul Manafort I knew that was going to be a disaster because he began running his own casino games under Trump thinking Trump wouldn’t win.”
Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was recently found guilty of tax and bank fraud charges.
During the election campaign, the world waited for Trump to flip from redneck billionaire to statesman. It never happened. “In a weird way everyone has pivoted to him,” Dowd says.
Dowd reckons Trump formed his view of success from Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Roy Cohn and Lee Iacocca, who would hang out in George Steinbrenner’s box at Yankee Stadium.
They were big, showy men who used mob language: rat, big, the best. “What’s hilarious about him – even Steve Bannon would say – he’s like an 11-year-old kid,” she says. “He’s so shameless about his childishness.
“You would think that being president would be this huge ratification – ‘wow, I’m amazing’,” she says. “Instead the White House seems to always bring out weird gremlins and insecurities in the presidents.
“In a way it makes me feel like everything I’ve done is meaningless because I spend two years with these people before they get in the White House.
“You try and give people a really good sense of who they are but then you can’t really … because you don’t know what events will happen in office that will collide with these rising securities.”
As the world watches in horrified fascination at what may be early onset presidential Alzheimer’s, Dowd compares Trump’s managerial culpability with earlier political leaders.
Bush jnr was so afraid after 9/11 that he outsourced foreign policy to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, she says. The result was a couple of wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and about $7 trillion.
“It was years before anyone in Washington could see that Dick Cheney was a crazy person,” she says.
“As great as the White House reporters are, if you put a nanny cam on Trump for two weeks and left him alone you would end up at the same place because he is so intent on self destruction,” she says.
“It’s not like Watergate where you have to dig and dig.”
Glass of Riesling $18
Glass of Chardonnay $17
Chicken breast $39
King Salmon $39
French fries $8
Beans and broccoli $10
Two lattes $9