By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Alison van Diggelen: I’m pleased to welcome Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Maureen – thank you for joining me today on Fresh Dialogues.
Maureen Dowd: Thank you Alison
Alison: So, first I want to talk about your Irish heritage. I understand that you were very close to your mother Peggy, and it’s been said that your columns are like letters to her. Do you feel that way?
Maureen: Oh, that’s very sweet; I’ve never heard that. There was a time when I first started in journalism when my mom stopped reading me actually because I was covering a suburb of Washington and writing about landfills and zoning. And so she said she’d only start reading me again if I got to some more interesting topics. So she is in my head in the sense that I want to inform and amuse the reader, and try to surprise them and tell them something they don’t know.
Alison: And is it your mother and your Irish blood that’s responsible for your humor and your biting prose, would you say?
Maureen: Hmm. We had an editor…I had a friend named Michael Kelly – he was the first journalist to die in the Iraq War – and we worked in the Washington Bureau of the (New York) Times together. We had an editor who used to call us GAEL FORCE (laughter)…as in G.A.E.L. But yeah…They say that the Irish understand about politics and writing and I hope it’s true. I like to think so.
Alison: You wrote in yesterday’s April 1st column “No More Hummer Nation” about America’s desire for all things big: big cars, living big, and spending big. And you ask a really good question: how do we come to terms with the gluttony that exploded our economy and still retain our reptilian American desire for living large? Do you have an answer to that question Maureen?
Maureen: It’s interesting because I had heard this French psychologist talk a few years ago on the radio about how Americans have…the reptilian part of their brain likes big things and that that’s who we are: we like big cars and McMansions and Costco where you go and you get 12 rolls of toilet paper and not just one. Whereas in Europe, you see people and they just go and get their food for the day and maybe one bouquet of flowers and one bag of groceries in their tiny cars. And so the question now is: how big do we need to feel to still feel American? As Obama tries to downsize us.
And the French psychologist is named G. Clotaire Repaille and he was hired by the American car manufacturers to justify the fact that they didn’t go green earlier and that why they kept making those huge SUVs, pickup trucks and Hummers long after they should have realized that those brands are not really where we needed to go. And so this guy – Repaille asserted that a reptilian part of the brain seeks tools of survival especially while the United States remains under threat of attack. This was after 9/11. He said you don’t want to go to war in a little Pinto. He patted a shiny black Hummer …a reconstituted military vehicle and called it quite reptilian. So that’s where their head was, even as recently as 2003.
Alison: Detroit just didn’t embrace that greener future? They were too tied up in the war…
Maureen: Yeah and I interviewed this great independent auto expert, named Marianne Keller who said when Rick Wagoner announced he was re-launching… buying the Hummer brand and re-launching it as a GM brand she was dumb-founded. She thought it was the most bizarre decision and it was just guys who wanted a macho car driving around Greenwich to get their bagels. And reporters who covered Detroit were so relieved about Wagoner being fired because they watched the industry for years and years and years refuse to embrace the future and just make all these stupid decision and reward themselves.
And I think that what’s depressing about the decade we’ve lived in is that America seems stupid and many many stupid decisions were made and I think that’s what Obama is focusing on turning around because he himself is a real smarty pants and his favorite thing is to be in a room with a bunch of eggheads and I think he wants Americans to be smarter and kids to be better educated.
Alison: Do you personally believe in a greener future? Is it something that you have embraced?
Maureen: Oh sure! And you know, a very little known fact is that when Jerry Ford was president his vice president was Rockefeller and he was a very moderate Republican you know, cosmopolitan. And he developed an idea for an energy plan for the country that would get us into alternative fuels and modern energy…and it was killed by lobbying from Ford’s chief of staff who was Dick Cheney. And so, if Dick Cheney had not done that, then our energy future would have been so much more advanced. So not only did he keep us going backwards for the eight years he was vice president, he started us going backwards many decades ago when he was Ford’s chief of staff.
You know everyone used to joke about two oilmen in the White House – was that too much? But there were all those ridiculous oxymorons like clean coal and the whole thing with Halliburton…the whole thing was just a time when America reeled backwards in many ways. And also, Bush and Cheney wanted to blow off all the international treaties as part of their desire to be a hyper power and so they couldn’t care less about Kyoto.
I covered the campaign of Bush’s father and Gore and I remember when Bush’s father called Gore, “Ozone Man” (laughter). It was just how they treated environmentalists: as sandal wearing, tree hugging idiots.
Alison: But you called Al Gore “practically lactating” over his eco views…
Alison: Do you feel a little more sympathetic now that he’s changed the world…?
Maureen: …Oh, I was sympathetic to him in terms of his ideas. I was just teasing him a little bit because he was so earnest and he could be a little righteous and self important. That’s not always the most effective way to communicate your ideas, even if the ideas themselves are right. I mean, certainly his ideas were right but he himself was – sometimes – a pompous messenger for them. He wasn’t that way in private, he just didn’t know how to get across a sense of humor and – things he had in private – in the public stage.
Alison: Did you ever coach him? Because he seems to have relaxed a bit recently.
Maureen: (laughter) No, I think it was one of those things: he came from a political family and his father was a famous senator with high expectations for him and he was always expected to be president and I just think he put a lot of pressure on himself and didn’t always make the right choices when he was under extreme pressure to be president. But I think in a way he’s enjoying himself more now that these expectations are not on him. He’s, you know, coming into his own in ways he couldn’t do in the campaign.
Alison: And as far as being green yourself, living a green life, do you take canvas bags to the store; do you think of the planet when you’re buying a car or buying an item for the house?
Maureen: For some reason, though I’m too young to have really had this grudge about World War II, I’ve always wanted to buy American cars. And I tried in my 20’s to buy American cars and I bought two Fords and they were really really terrible cars and broke down all the time… and I spent more on fixing them than I did on buying them. And so finally after a decade of struggling with Ford, I bought a Miata and I’ve had it since 1990 and I think it’s been in the shop once.
And I think that’s the essence of where America went wrong because we used to be just the place for excellence and products and real things. And somewhere along the line, not only did we give up our pursuit of excellence and actual products, but we began pursuing these financial products that didn’t exist, like derivatives, and as one congressman put it: we began packaging smoke. So we were trying to make money from money. So I always think of the time where I couldn’t buy America cars anymore as the time when America was somehow on the wrong path.
Alison: Beyond cars…what other green ways do you live? Is it something that’s on your mind on a daily basis?
Maureen: Well…yeah, I try. I try to get advice from Tom Friedman who is Mr. Solar around our office (laughter). He’s done a new book which is very involved with energy and his whole house is solar designed and I gave him for Christmas a solar lantern for his house. I ask him and he’s trying to coach me in how to be more environmentally correct.
Alison: Last night, you called him your “office husband”…
Maureen: …He is…
Alison: …How does his wife feel about that?
Maureen: (laughter) She likes me too. Yeah, he’s my office husband and when he gets depressed about the environment or the Middle East or something at the Times, he comes in – this happens very rarely – because Tom’s a very serious guy…but he’ll come in and go, “Let’s get a daiquiri!” (laughter) and then I know he’s not feeling good.
Alison: I have read his book, “Hot Flat and Crowded” – it’s excellent and he has a premise that America has lost its groove and can get its groove back by embracing green energy and green tech. What do you think about that?
Maureen: That’s true. I mean, this was the first campaign I’ve ever covered where I’d go and watch Hillary and Obama in the primary and they were both competing to come up with a plan for green jobs and for me it’s very exciting because for the last eight years that Bush and Cheney were in it felt like we were going backwards in every way. You know we weren’t coming into the 21st Century and we were kinda like the Flintstones – just not moving forward. So I love all that.
Alison: One final question. Talking of dreams, what is your dream day? How would your dream day go?
Maureen: Oooh. That’s something I always ask presidential candidates and they never have a good answer and I probably don’t have a good answer either. Let’s see, my dream day? Well it would definitely involve a movie because I love movies. Maybe an old movie, an old film noire movie like “Out of the Past”. Something with Robert Mitchum. And gosh, it would definitely involve a cute guy that I could bewitch…hopefully (laughter). And um, let’s see…it would probably involve a glass of chardonnay and um, and some volunteerism, definitely (laughter).
Alison: Some volunteerism? (laughter)
Maureen: And some green…you know…recycling (laughter)
Alison: So you would have a good green day?
Maureen: Yes, a green day.
Maureen: And maybe some green guacamole or something (laughter)
Alison: And no Guinness?
Maureen: Guinness… hmmm, I think. I love Guinness but… I always worry that it might be a little fattening. But if it’s my dream day…why not? I’ll start off with…what’s that thing called when they combine Guinness and champagne? A black velvet or something? We can start the day with that…but only if you come with me. (laughter)
Alison: That sounds good. You’re on. We have a date.
Maureen: That’s a date!
Alison: (Pause) Maureen Dowd, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you so much for being on Fresh Dialogues.
Maureen: All right. Thank you so much Alison.
To listen to the entire interview with Maureen Dowd: click here