Monday, January 11, 2010

That Maureen Dowd column...

I have a slightly different take on this Maureen Dowd op-ed than Matt Yglesias does, though I largely agree with his take as well. Here's the offending passage:

No Drama Obama is reticent about displays of emotion. The Spock in him needs to exert mental and emotional control. That is why he stubbornly insists on staying aloof and setting his own deliberate pace for responding — whether it’s in a debate or after a debacle. But it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared.

Our professorial president is no feckless W., biking through Katrina. He is no doubt on top of the crisis in terms of studying it top to bottom. But his inner certainty creates an outer disconnect.

He’s so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he misses the moment to be president — to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and instructs the public at traumatic moments.

He’s more like the aloof father who’s turned the Situation Room into a Seminar Room.

To be honest, aside from the fact that she writes in one of the nation's prominent newspapers, there is never any particular reason to take Maureen Dowd seriously.

But I do think that this article reveals more about Dowd herself than it does about Obama, Matt Yglesias or "Americans" like myself. I don't think that Dowd wants an Eisenhower-like fatherly (really grandfatherly) figure of a president. I think that what you see here are two separate aspects of our news media's mentality at this point in time. The first point is that the news media largely disdains Obama because he couldn't give less of a damn about impressing them (hence the references to aloofness). He isn't running a permanent campaign. He doesn't have confabs with prominent journalists. He is more interested in governing than appearing that he's governing. In other words, after a gloriously exciting campaign, he's turned out to be the extremely rare political figure who turns out to be more substance than style. There's nothing exciting about playing golf and taking a subdued tack after a terrorist attack. I personally think this is a great, great thing. Ms. Dowd thinks otherwise. But I think that this accounts for a lot of the anger addressed at Obama from various quarters. He just doesn't give a shit about people like Maureen Dowd, and I tend to think Obama is right not to. But, unsurprisingly, this pisses off Maureen Dowd. I should stress that I couldn't find a place in the article where the connection to this theory was direct, but I kept getting that feeling when I was reading it.

The second point here is that Dowd, like much of the media, has an essentially condescending relationship with the American public. The argument that she makes here is basically that Americans simply can't handle a terror attempt. She thinks we Americans need constant reassurance from figures in authority, and that anything short of the political equivalent of getting permission to slip into our parents' bed when we get afraid is somehow a betrayal. This is certainly a debatable notion, albeit a cynical one (and, in my opinion, an inaccurate one). But the bizarre kick here is that she couches this in terms that make it seem like Obama's inability to offer it stems from Obama himself being too soft--at least, that's what the last line sounds like, though it's pretty much incomprehensible. I think that this might stem from the first point--that Obama isn't "tough" enough to face people like Dowd, therefore he's soft. But the argument that she's making for the rest of the piece is that Obama is too hard, too distant. At some point, this just becomes an uncomfortable journey into the inner life of Maureen Dowd, which seems brutal and scary enough that I don't think I need to say anything more about it.

In the final analysis, Dowd is something of a crank, and her columns are usually crankish. I suppose the bright side is that her influence seems to have sharply diminished over the past few years, as said crankishness has risen to the fore. What kills me is that, despite the Obama criticism, this column comes off as almost a right-wing parody of left-wingers--a supremely un-self-aware exercise in snobbery that insults the intelligence of most Americans (excluding Dowd and perhaps Times readers--she doesn't personalize this fear). It's irritating to me that this woman has any public profile at all. But what continues to amaze me is just how many mediocrities the Paper of Record gladly publishes in its op-ed page. I mean, when David Brooks and Frank Rich are among your better columnists, it might be time to clean house and find some fresh new voices.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.