Lost in Translation
- Ronald Goldfarb
- December 23, 2016
Much of Maureen Dowd’s brilliance is missing from her latest book.
I am a Maureen Dowd fan. I open my New York Times on her scheduled days always anticipating a literary indulgence full of punch and personality. She is a smart and cheeky editorialist, and has been for many years. She is rarely flat.
Unfortunately, her new collection, The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics, demonstrates why editors don’t like collections and usually resist publishing them.
First, op-eds often become stale after losing the pith and power of their first publication. In the case of the recent election, it is painful to reread Dowd’s pieces about Trump and Hillary, devastating as they are, were, and remain. Many of Dowd’s fans are trying to forget the election and her tough pieces about the winners and losers (I was a Bernie man).
Still, as far back as May 2016, she had it right. Bernie “bedeviling” Hillary’s “joyless” campaign, a “death march” competing with Trump’s “suicide mission,” the whole presidential race “transcendentally bizarre,” and voters “voting against the other, rather than for their own.”
Reading a collection of Dowd's pieces one after the other pointed out something readers would miss reading them one at a time when they were first published. Many of the funny and wise remarks are quotes from others which she regularly uses to hit the nail right on the finger, as the wisecrack goes. But when one reads a series of pieces and sees punchlines of others reappearing regularly, it lessens the awe of the op-ed’s voice.
Her taped recordings of interviews, however — one-on-one with Lorne Michaels, for example — bring a fresh look at the reporter as interviewer. And her talk with “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon gave interesting insight to the process of comic satirizers.
However, her practice in her columns (and in the collection, too) of using articles by her conservative kin may provide private fun around the family dinner table, but most readers of Dowd's work won’t think brother Kevin or sister Peggy is worth reading and will want their money back when their anti-New York Times rants appear.
Second, when publishers publish the collections of star writers, they have to pay them well, and that means they have to send them on television tours to push sales of the book. On Bill Maher’s show, Dowd was ill, and that resulted in a lame interview. I didn’t enjoy seeing one of my favorites shown in a bad light.
Still, reading Dowd, especially her shticks and stabs at presidents (and would-be’s), is always a treat. Old pieces, like her long piece about George H.W. Bush, remind readers how far back her skewering of Washington figures goes. (It’s ironic to read that the elder president Bush complained to Dowd, “Why does the New York Times want to make an enemy of a friend, Saudi Arabia?”)
That was before 9/11, but has a haunting aspect today. Her line that Bush 41 thought Arsenio Hall was a building at Andover is one example of her ability to capture culture in a deft and killing sentence.
If one wonders what will sustain her now that the Clintons are not around to mock anymore, well, there is Trump, who "after this bumfuzzling race of 2016," provides more material than even she can mine.
"We have the king of winging it versus the queen of homework...Trump can excite his crowds but falters on substance; Hillary has substance but falters on exciting her crowds."
She mocks Hillary regularly, but also is capable of noting that Hillary and Michelle Obama have the same credentials as their husbands but, as first ladies, "have to deal with china while the president deals with China." She admires the Obamas, but points out that Barack "had no LBJ elbow grease or appetite for the fight," thinking that electing him alone was the change people wanted.
Dowd admits the daunting nature of predicting how presidents will govern, worrying that "I am living through so much amazing history, I'll never be able to record it all." I'm betting on her doing so, better than most others.
My criticisms here notwithstanding, fans of Dowd will still have a collection of her past works to pick from for entertainment, and we can never get too much of her individual pieces. Read them one at a time.
Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.