In her last column before the election, the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd waxed nostalgic about the transformation of John McCain from a free-wheeling, open-hearted, no-bullshit maverick loved by the press into a crabbed, resentful geriatric whose advisors “cut off the oxygen to his brain.” “McCain pals around with Joe the Plumber, exactly the kind of campaign silliness that the McCain formerly known as Maverick would have mercilessly mocked,” she wrote, deploying her usual alliterative pyrotechnics.
For those who don’t read her in the Times, Dowd is a Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist who applies a razor-sharp, verbally dexterous wit to the character foibles of the nation’s biggest political personalities. This coming Wednesday, she’ll appear at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, where she’s bound to delight and provoke in equal measure.
Dowd is an equal opportunity offender, and one of the most high-profile columnists in the country. Her pre-election McCain takedown, like many of the columns she writes for the Times, shot immediately to the top of the paper’s most emailed list. Why? It didn’t say anything that hadn’t been said, ad nauseam, over the preceding weeks and months. It wasn’t about deep-tissue politics, or the polis, or the monumental importance of our political moment, but about a laggardly presidential candidate’s campaign difficulties. What’s Dowd’s secret?
The most obvious answer is that in addition to her rhetorical felicity, she’s huge, snarky fun. She offers loads of sophisticated sizzle, which she weighs down with a minimum of steak-a politics lacking in ideas, but absolutely flush with personalities. She uses comedy’s tools (ridicule, exaggeration) to tear apart her hapless subjects, be they Hilary Clinton (“the Terminator”), Sarah Palin (“Napoleon in bunny boots”), or the state of Alaska (an “icebox”). Palin has been a particular gift to Dowd; I spurted scalding coffee out of my nose when I read this chestnut, from a column after the VP debate:
Talking about how she would “positively affect the impacts” of the climate change for which she’s loath to acknowledge human culpability, she did a dizzying verbal loop-de-loop: “With the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that, as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change sub-cabinet to start dealing with the impacts.” That was, miraculously, richer with content than an answer she gave Katie Couric: “You know, there are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now, with these impacts.”
Palin does a lot of the work in that paragraph, but it’s easy to overlook how skillfully Dowd put it together.
Of course, part of the problem with political snark is that unlike even the most annihilating ideological contempt, it is essentially substance-less. I am one of those who believes Al Gore was destroyed by the press in 2000, for reasons that were largely trivial, and Dowd led the pack, famously writing that “Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct that he’s practically lactating”-a surpassingly insulting and idiotic comment. (In 2003, when Gore was one of the few prominent American politicians to forcefully oppose the invasion of Iraq as ill-conceived, Dowd lumped him in with the “wackadoo wing of the Democratic party.”)
Another problem with Dowd’s propensity for reducing politics to caricatures of the personalities involved, as she has been accused of doing by the Weekly Standard, is that she often gets it wrong. From the beginning of the election she described our new president as a naif, a “wispy egghead,” and “Obambi.” If anyone now believes that Obama is anything other than an extraordinarily adroit politician, willing to, for example, reverse his promise to accept public campaign funding limits when it was no longer politically expedient-well, it raises the question of who, in fact, is being naive.
In any case, Dowd’s popularity-or notoriety, depending on your opinion-is by now as clearly enduring as it is well-earned. She may strive to score belly laughs, but she never seems to be straining too hard for her effects, which are, indeed, dazzling. Why does one gravitate toward her brand of sadistic entertainment when across the page Nicolas Kristoff is writing passionately and knowledgably about Darfur, or Paul Krugman about the economy? Perhaps, unfortunately, that question answers itself.
One worries for Dowd now that President Bush is leaving office and Sarah Palin has disappeared to Alaska. Her attempts to poke holes in the Oval Office’s new chief resident have so far been a little lame; calling him “The One” got tired by its second repetition. Perhaps it’s true that Obama has a degree of personal dignity and political maturity that frustrates political satire, as a number of comedians have complained. Paula Poundstone thinks it’s possible. “Obama does have a certain innate dignity,” she acceded. “He doesn’t seem to be as innately silly as the others.”
But Poundstone, an award-winning stand-up comedian who will perform at Campbell Hall on Sunday, said that she’s not unduly concerned-professionally speaking-by the prospect of an Obama administration. “I feel very strongly, as a comic, that I don’t have to get my jokes from failed presidencies. We could have a good president, and I want to assure the American people that I will come up with jokes about other subjects.”
Like Dowd, Poundstone is widely known for her rapier sharp eviscerations of high-profile political figures. But as a comic, not a columnist, she has a much broader scope; her performances range, fluidly and often extemporaneously, across an unpredictable landscape of pop culture, politics, and the vicissitudes of modern American life. Since her start as an itinerant open mike stand-up in Boston in the early 1980s, Poundstone has a built up a sterling reputation among fans and fellow comics for her prodigious improvisational skills. These skills are extensively evident to NPR fans (particularly those with an obsessive sickness for NPR podcasts), who know Poundstone from her regular appearances on the weekly news-quiz program Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me. As regular listeners know, Wait Wait, and Poundstone, especially, have gotten a lot of mileage out of the election, and particularly the political ascendance of Sarah Palin. So what happens now? Over the phone with The Independent, Poundstone did allow herself, in the end, to get a little wistful, especially about Palin. “She was a gift. She gave more to comedy than the Keystone Cops. When the country was down, and feeling like there was nothing to laugh about anymore, she gave of herself.” For Poundstone and Dowd alike, with luck, the Obama administration will give a little of itself, too. But hopefully not too much.
Paula Poundstone will perform at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, November 16, at 7 p.m. Maureen Dowd appears there on Wednesday, November 19, at 7:30 pm. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.