BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Maureen Dowd, author of columns and the book called "Bushworld," where`d that title come from?
MAUREEN DOWD, AUTHOR, "BUSHWORLD: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK": I had used the term in some columns, and -- I don`t know. It just seemed like a natural fit.
LAMB: On the cover is a cartoon by Pat Oliphant. Why?
DOWD: Pat Oliphant and I worked at "The Washington Star" together when I first started out, and I was a lowly clerk, so he didn`t take much notice of me. He was a fantastic star. And Arthur Gelb, my mentor at "The Times," said that Oliphant is the Hirschfeld of political cartoons, and if I could get him to do the cover -- so I called him, and he`s a very sort of -- a little bit on the surface curmudgeonly but really shy Australian. And I called him at the very last minute. He could only do it in a weekend, and Putnam didn`t think it could be done in time. And I -- and I said to Putnam, But he`s used to doing things in a couple of hours. And so I called him and begged him, and he did it. And it`s, I think, fantastic in a literal sense and a figurative one.
LAMB: What`s it say?
DOWD: I love the gargoyles. You can see there`s one on a spine on top of the White House gate.
LAMB: What`s it say that -- the caricature of George Bush itself, you think?
DOWD: Well, I think that, you know, sometimes people talk about Cheney and Bush`s advisers as having led him down the primrose path. But I think Oliphant thinks that the president is responsible for what happens in the White House and that everything is about the president, in terms of the coming election. So he wanted to just focus on the president. I had originally thought of having, you know, the whole court of Bushworld.
LAMB: What`s the term "Bushworld" mean to you?
DOWD: Well, I think -- and I think Oliphant captured this on the cover -- it`s kind of a -- a bizarro world, where no apologies are made, no twinge of shame is ever expressed, kind of an alternate reality, where -- almost like a "Jurassic Park," where we`ve been taken on this scary ride and we sort of don`t know why, and we can`t get off.
It`s a world where they have made their own reality. WMDs -- they still expect to find WMDs. They still think, you know, Iraq had a connection with al Qaeda. They still think Iraq had more of a connection than Iran, even though the 9/11 committee has said -- you know, said otherwise. And they still think they`ve made the world a safer place, even though the State Department reports more terror incidents now. So...
LAMB: You ever...
DOWD: ... a bizarro world.
LAMB: You ever met George W. Bush?
DOWD: Oh, yes. I -- well, I met him -- well, I guess I didn`t meet him. I saw him around during -- I was "The Times" White House reporter in his father`s first term. I mean, his father`s only term. So I saw him around there, and I met him after he became governor, when he was governor-elect. When he was governor-elect, I went to the Republican governors conference, and he came up to say that he -- I had written a Sunday book review of his mom`s -- one of his mom`s memoirs that gave it a favorable review, and he came up to say that he liked it and was very charming, bantering. And at that point, I thought, Wow, this is a completely different guy than what he seemed to be when he was the loyalty enforcer in his dad`s White House, firing Sununu and kind of checking everyone`s loyalty.
LAMB: What`s -- what`s the name Cobra (ph) mean to you?
DOWD: Oh, that`s the nickname he gave me. He gives everyone nicknames, and that`s mine.
LAMB: What`s it supposed to mean?
DOWD: Well, I guess you`d have to ask him.
LAMB: And you first met in the midst of all this, George Herbert Walker Bush, when?
DOWD: Oh, I covered his -- well, let me think. I`m not sure exactly when we met. I first started doing political reporting during the 1984 race, and I covered Ferraro. So I covered the debate where George Herbert Walker Bush said, you know -- was pleased with his performance and said he had "kicked a little" -- whatever. So I`ve had experience with the Bushes kind of overdoing it on the macho stuff for a long time. That was my first experience with him.
LAMB: What was your experience like when you went to the presidential library?
DOWD: Oh. Well, that was right after his son got elected, and the former President Bush asked me to be a speaker at a panel on White House and the media. And I went, and he was charming, as he always has been to me. I mean, he`s really a lovely guy and always was to me. And -- but he joked that he had to wait until Barbara left the country to invite me to the library, except then I don`t think it was a joke because she was out of the country. But he -- he was very proud of his son that night and was just sort of glowing to be the first, you know, president and -- who had a son as president since the Adamses.
And he -- he was fine, but his advisers were very, very worried about the tone of the second Bush White House, and they thought there had already been tussles with Russia and China, and they thought it was way too belligerent. And I remember one of them saying to me, We thought the Clinton guys made it up as they went along, but these guys are really, you know, being too sort of barrel-chested and too improvisational and too belligerent. And so the tone among his aides was very -- you know, What`s happening here? We were internationalists, and they`re acting like unilateralists.
LAMB: You dedicate your book, "For my mom, who thinks all the Bushes are swell."
LAMB: Where`s Mom live?
DOWD: Mom is in Chevy Chase.
LAMB: Here in the Washington area.
DOWD: Right. And she -- she has been -- I mean, she stayed up all night the night Truman won, with my dad, and was a very excited Democrat. And then became a Reagan Democrat and then a Reagan Republican and loved Ronald Reagan. And I took her to a White House Christmas party once in the first Bush White House, and Bush kissed her. And in the car on the way home, she was quiet for a while, and then she turned to me and she said, I never want you to write a mean word about that man again! I said, Mom, I`m a reporter.
But she loved Clinton, too. I mean, she identified with Clinton because she thought he was very kind of -- he could be insecure and vulnerable, and she identified with that. She`s kind of a Catholic, literally, and in her political tastes.
LAMB: In your introduction, you -- or acknowledgements, you say Peggy Dowd dwells happily in Bushworld, but she is the most loyal sister on the planet, so she is always there for me, even when I tweak a president she passionately admires. Ditto my niece, Jen (ph). Where is Peggy Dowd?
DOWD: Well, my sister is fantastic, but she -- she actually worked on W`s convention in the last convention, and I -- she -- there was no hotel room in town, so she shared my hotel room. So I was always getting home from writing my column kind of tweaking the Republicans, and there would be a "W stands for women" placard, you know, in the living room.
She`s wonderful. She is threatening to cut me out of her will and use my brother, who`s an attorney, to do it, because they`re all very conservative Republicans, so -- they all give me a hard time, but they love me.
LAMB: And why do they give you a hard time?
DOWD: Because they`re very conservative Republicans, and they love this president. And it`s sort of like, you know, when -- during the Clinton years, they loved when I tweaked Clinton during impeachment or whatever, but they forget about that during the Republican years and just think I`m -- they forget that I`m an equal opportunity skeptic.
LAMB: What`s that mean?
DOWD: Well, it means someone who isn`t a cynic but who also isn`t going along with the spin, I would say. I think, you know, what I do is -- my theory is that presidents and politicians have a lot of people on the public payroll to put out their version of events. And oftentimes, for whatever reason, their version of events, it tends to be misleading. So I think journalism at its best can kind of do pentimento and go underneath the portrait they`re giving and try -- and give Americans what is really happening, what is underneath what they`re saying that is the true portrait. At our best, I would say.
LAMB: For someone who`s never read you, when did your column start?
DOWD: It started in 1995, on July 4.
LAMB: And when did you first know that you might even have an opportunity to write a column?
DOWD: Well, I had heard it talked about, but I really -- I wasn`t sure I wanted to do it, and I didn`t really think I`d be good at it because I`m -- you know, I`m not a natural, I wouldn`t say, like Tom Friedman or Anna Quindlen (ph). I mean, they are -- Abe Rosenthal. They`re all very sure of what they think, and they`re very, you know, articulate about what they think. And I -- you know, it takes me a while to figure out what I think.
And also, I don`t -- I`m not a natural polemicist, the way Safire is, for instance. I mean, that form of 700 words is perfect for him because he has an opinion, and then he just gets it across. And my form of journalism was mostly letting people reveal themselves through their own quotes and me making observations and metaphors. And all those things take a lot of space. So in a column, if you put in two or three quotes, it`s over.
And when I first started, I remember Tom and Anna saying, You can`t, you know, have too many quotes. It`s hard. You know, and they had both been journalists, too. And so for me, it was an exact reversal of the kind of journalism I loved and that I had done. And you know, I still miss that kind of journalism. I mean, it`s hard for me just to be stating an opinion very strongly, you know, rather than an indirect kind of letting people talk and seeing where we go.
LAMB: Do people that read newspapers understand the role of a columnist?
DOWD: I don`t know because, you know, in a way, it`s kind of -- because of the babble, the tower of Babel on cable, and blogs, you know, there`s so much opinion. Now I have to Nexis -- if I think of a funny line -- like, if I think of a line like, Are they crying Wolfowitz, for instance, I have to Nexis it because in the hours before my column would get in, you know, Mickey Kaus could have used it or someone else on a blog, or it might be on cable, one of the, you know, commentators. And then you`d be using something old.
Like, the other day at the convention, you know, when I saw John Kerry in the spacesuit, I thought he looked very much like Woody Allen playing a sperm in "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex." But before I could write that in a column, John Tierney used it in his column and somebody else -- oh, oh, Tucker Carlson used it on "Crossfire." So there`s so much opinion everywhere in the ether that, you know, it`s not like the old days, when Walter Lippman or James Reston would expound and everyone was waiting for that, and that was the last word.
LAMB: How many columnists are there, regular columnists, in "The New York Times"?
DOWD: Well, that`s a good question because now we`re getting in guest columnists like...
LAMB: Like Barbara Ehrenreich.
DOWD: Yes. And we have another legal affairs columnist from "Slate" who`s starting, I think, very soon. And I don`t know. I`d have to count them up because it`s -- we`re losing and we`re gaining all the time.
LAMB: But traditionally, six or seven?
DOWD: Yes, or eight.
LAMB: And how -- for a journalist, how big a deal is it to have one of those spots?
DOWD: Oh, well, it`s a huge deal. I mean, they call it, you know, the best real estate in the business. And you know, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I just cannot believe that I am a columnist on the "Times" op-ed page. And you know, I get very insecure and think, Well, who wants to hear what I have to say? And that`s why I try to rely on reporting more, you know, because it is. It`s terrifying, like, to be expounding from those Olympian heights. I mean, I don`t think Tom and Safire have those sort of qualms. You know, I think -- you know.
LAMB: What`s the worst thing that`s happened to you in the sense of feedback that you get over these years?
DOWD: Oh, you know, people -- as the discourse in the country has coarsened and broadened out with the Internet, you know, people do feel free to say really, really nasty and personal stuff. And I think -- I don`t write about people`s personal lives unless they become a federal case, as with Monica. Like, I would never have written about Monica if she were not part of the impeachment investigation.
But I think because I tend to focus on the personalities of leaders, then sometimes people think it`s OK to, you know, talk about my personal life, which is not what I`m doing with them. I only talk about their personal lives as they affect them, as leaders, or policy. So lots of times, people will say really, really nasty stuff in e-mails or on the air about me. And you know, it`s hard. That`s the hard part of the job, I would say. It`s even hard than being a polemicist.
LAMB: How many times a week?
DOWD: It`s twice a week.
LAMB: What days?
DOWD: My days are Thursday and Sunday.
LAMB: And how many newspapers run it?
DOWD: You know, I`ve never asked. I was afraid that the answer might not be good. I don`t know.
LAMB: In your columns, periodically you will give us a little bit of your own personal background. One of them, for instance, I remember you got a couple brothers who were pages in the Senate back in the `50s.
LAMB: How big is the Dowd family?
DOWD: Well, I have three brothers and one sister and zillions of nieces and nephews, and they`re all in Washington. And my brothers were pages for Prescott Bush, actually, this president`s grandfather. And they said he was a senator straight out of central casting -- very tall and craggy and always wore gray worsted wool suits, even in summer. And they were also pages for JFK and Nixon.
And funnily, enough -- and they -- and my brother delivered the mail to them, and their offices were next to each other at one point. And my brother said that JFK was always sort of icy -- you know, saving his magnetism for the crowds -- and that Nixon was always so friendly and sweet to the pages and would, you know, be nice to them and save them, as Lyndon Johnson was, you know, after them for something. And so they tell stories.
And I think maybe because my family -- and my father was a police detective who was in charge of Senate security for 20 years and was in charge of security during the Army-McCarthy hearings. And I think that maybe that gives me a perspective on Washington. For instance, during the Clinton impeachment, I mean, because of stories my brother had told about answering the phone from senators` wives and they`d be calling, saying, I`m going to come down there if you don`t get the senator to the phone, and then Bobby Baker, the sergeant-of-arms, would be rushing around looking for the husband who was off with another woman -- I mean, I always had thought, you know, politicians have always, you know, had these kind of dalliances.
So it did not seem to me an impeachable offense, you know, because in my family, I`d heard about this from my brothers. You know, it just seemed part of politics.
LAMB: How old are your brothers today?
DOWD: Oh, well, they`re in their late 60s.
LAMB: And what do they do?
DOWD: One of my brothers is a lawyer and one`s an artist and one`s a salesman.
LAMB: And how about your sister?
DOWD: My sister has the most fantastic job title in Washington. She is the executive assistant to the executive director of the trade association for trade associations.
LAMB: Younger or older?
DOWD: They`re all older.
LAMB: Where were you born?
DOWD: I was born in Washington. My first memory, actually, is of the Capitol, my mom driving down to pick up my dad at night. And I thought the statue on top was an Indian, and it was only years later, when I did a story about it -- when they took it down to clean it, I did a story for the Washington bureau and found out that it was actually a woman, you know, and not an Indian. So...
LAMB: Where`d you go to high school?
DOWD: I went to Immaculata. I went to Catholic schools all the way through.
LAMB: And then where`d you go to college?
DOWD: Catholic U.
LAMB: What`d you study?
DOWD: English literature, specializing in Shakespeare.
LAMB: And when was your -- what was your first job out of college?
DOWD: I worked at the Washington Hilton, in the racquet club, hiring and firing lifeguards and tennis instructors.
LAMB: What was your first writing job?
DOWD: Well, my family had an intervention after a certain point and told me I had to get a job where I wasn`t wearing a tennis dress to the office. And my brother called me up one night and said, Come down to this bar, you know, there`s a friend of mine here. And it was Dave Bergen (ph), who was the metro editor of "The Washington Star." And he agreed to hire me. And I said, Well, can I wait until the tennis season is over? And then he said, You`re fired. But then the next day, we worked it out, and I started -- I kept my job at the tennis club, but I started working as a clerk at "The Star" on the 9:00 PM shift, 9:00 to 5:00 AM.
LAMB: What`d you do after "The Washington Star" folded?
DOWD: I went to "Time" magazine for a couple years and worked in the Washington bureau and New York and as a writer and as a reporter. And then Anna Quindlen hired me onto the metro desk of "The New York Times." She found my clips moldering in some drawer somewhere and called me.
LAMB: And up to this point, where had you learned how to write?
DOWD: I`d always loved writing, but I never really thought of making a profession of it until I was at "The Star." My ambition is always kind of lateral. I mean, I see other people doing it, and I think, Well, I could do that. So at "The Star," the clerks would -- we were actually dictationists, so when reporters would call in -- it was an afternoon paper -- we would put on our headsets and type up their stories, and then it would go straight into the afternoon paper. So you know, once I began seeing what their stories were like and what the other dictationists were doing, I began to think, Well, I could do that, maybe.
DOWD: So …. we would work at night on our own stories.
LAMB: This network is 25 years old this year.
DOWD: Right. I know.
LAMB: And we have never, ever...
LAMB: ... had you -- I only mention it because we`ve never seen you on this network except in performance somewhere with one of these events out there in the world.
DOWD: But I am always watching at home, Brian.
LAMB: Thank you. No, but what I really want to know is -- you clearly don`t like this medium, or at least, you don`t appear on it.
DOWD: I did it -- actually, I used to do it when I first started, and then I had this disastrous experience on "Nightline." Alessandra Stanley and I went on, and we went on to do a show about Bush, Sr.`s, first year in office, the style of it. And Ted Koppel was just in a bad mood that night. He wrote me a letter of apology afterwards, which is more valuable to me than all the letters I`ve gotten from presidents because it`s so rare. But suffice it to say that the show didn`t go that well, and it ended up in a book as the worst show in "Nightline" history, which is not where you want to be!
But that isn`t even why I stopped doing TV. I stopped doing it because right at about that time, television began to be all about the right and the left, which it still is, in a way. And when they call to ask you to do it, they`d say, Tell us which side you`re going to be on. And if you`d say, I don`t want to take a side, you know, they would say then, You can`t because we`re going to pair you up with So-and-So, so you have to choose. And I just think that that put you in a box too much. It`s not conducive to creative or imaginative thinking. So I just kind of opted out.
LAMB: Well, when you -- by the way, whose idea was it to do this book of columns?
DOWD: Well, you know, it was funny because I -- I always thought columns were too ephemeral to put in a book. I mean, I loved reading Anna Quindlen`s and Tom`s when they were in book form...
LAMB: Tom Friedman.
DOWD: Yes. But for me, I was afraid they would just be too ephemeral because my shtick is to be right on top of the news and right in the news. And I thought -- like, with the Clinton impeachment, I won a Pulitzer for those columns, but I thought maybe it was like the fever in "A Midsummer Night`s Dream" and it would just snap, and then people wouldn`t want to really hear about it again.
But in this case, I think that, you know, it has the extra dimension of this incredible father-son drama, which -- you know, I mean, I`ve been fascinated with father-son dramas in math and literature, in Shakespeare, in, you know, the use of the Joseph Campbell myth to do "Star Wars" -- Luke Skywalker had the light, you know, good father, and then Darth Vader was the dark, bad father. And I mean, that aspect of it fascinated me.
And I also think, because of the neo-cons hijacking the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, that this will be something that will be studied in politics classes and journalism classes for decades to come and will affect the country for generations to come. So this -- and also because people had been misled by the administration. There were so many -- you know, you`d see Fox viewers, 80 percent still think there`s an al Qaeda-Iraq connection. So I thought that at some point, a lot of Americans were going to want to, as they say in the CIA, walk the cat back and start at the beginning and see how they got into this. So I thought, in this case, it might be worth it.
LAMB: Published by Penguin? My first reaction, when I picked up the book, was -- and I`ve read you since you started, and anybody that`s read you since you started know that you are not timid about the Clinton years, and people who like Bill Clinton didn`t like what you wrote. Would that be fair to say?
DOWD: Oh, well, yes.
LAMB: I mean, they didn`t like it at all. I mean, they...
DOWD: Right. I know. Republicans, you know, hate me when a Republican president is in and love me when a Democratic one is in.
LAMB: I mean, right now, they love what you`re doing about George Bush. But my reaction was, Why would you put out a -- only a "Bushworld" book, which if I picked it up and didn`t know you, I`d say, This person is a left-wing whatever, hating George Bush and never writes a bad word about the other side. Why would you do that?
DOWD: Well, in retrospect, I -- you know, now that I see it, I`ve fallen in love with, like, hardcovers. It`s fascinating and amazing to see your work in hardcovers, and intimidating. You think, Is this -- you know, I read it, and sometimes I`ll read it and think, This is good enough, and other times I`ll think, Well, that`s cool, to see it that way.
And I wish I had done the Clinton, but I don`t think it`s too late. I`m thinking now, you know, the sequel will be "Hillaryland" because I have all the Clinton stuff, and I think the Clintons will be in ascension again, depending on what happens. So it only just happened that this father-son drama, covering this one family for 25 years in this unique historical situation kind of drew me to the book world. But I -- you know, obviously, I`m going to do more that are not about Republicans or the Bushes.
LAMB: Well, looking back at some of the columns that you wrote on either Al Gore or Bill Clinton -- here`s some words that you used to describe Al Gore. "Phony," "smarmy," "sniveling," "preppy sneak." You remember those?
LAMB: And there are others. "The `Animal House` president" -- talking about Bill Clinton -- "has messed up big time again, and he must be dragged back from the precipice by the bimbo patrol."
I mean, anybody that`s read you is used to all that. Did you ever get any feedback from the Clintons or the Gores?
DOWD: Well, the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill were always charming to me when I met them, and still are. You know, I heard what they would say, maybe, behind my back. But you know, I don`t blame them. I mean, you know, if I were a president and had me writing about them, I`d say the same thing.
LAMB: Why? I mean, what role, then, is -- why...
DOWD: Well, I think it`s hard -- you know, it`s hard for anyone to take criticism. I can`t take criticism. I can`t read anything about myself. My family is astonished I ended up in this profession because when I was little, I was so overly sensitive. I thought sensitivity was, like, a disease, like leukemia, you could die of. And I think it is hard to hear criticism. But I think that people who succeed in any profession, leaders, have to either surround themselves with people who will tell them the truth or they have to read people who are telling them the truth. One or the other. They`re going to get it on the inside or the outside.
And people like this President Bush, who do not read newspapers and let, you know, his vice president filter all information to him and -- you know, and he also -- he doesn`t listen to a large group of people, and he has not surrounded himself with people who give him a hard time and say, No, you know, maybe we should look at it from another point of view -- I mean, we all hoped Colin Powell would do that, but he didn`t really. He had more people like Tenet, who was constantly apple-polishing and telling him what he wanted to hear, telling him the intelligence would be a slam dunk when, clearly, it wasn`t. And even Bush realized it wasn`t. And he said, you know, after that first briefing, you know, It doesn`t look like there`s much here. But Tenet said, No, no. It`s a slam dunk, almost like apple-polishing more than Bush wanted to hear.
So I think -- you know, I think that journalists serve a great role in society of checks and balances and kind of opening the veil to tell the truth. But I can -- as someone who`s hypersensitive myself, I can really understand where you don`t want to hear it and don`t like the messenger.
LAMB: You refer to "Murderers` Row" in your book. What is it?
DOWD: Oh, that -- that`s what we call -- Tom Friedman and Bill Safire and I are all in the same hall. And also Johnny Apple is an honorary member, although not technically a columnist, but he is.
LAMB: The columnists at "The New York Times" have their own office?
DOWD: Yes, and Johnny has his own office, and obviously, Johnny has opinions, so I included him in Murderers` Row.
LAMB: You`re right here in Washington.
LAMB: Always write your column -- do you write your column in your office?
DOWD: Yes, I do. And until I got an office there, I think Safire was the worst draft (ph) guy in the corridor, but now I think I have that honor.
LAMB: A.O. Scott (ph) -- I understand from listening to somebody else mention him on the radio one time, his name`s Tony?
LAMB: ... Tony Scott. In April of 1999 wrote about you. Did you remember reading that?
DOWD: I never read anything about myself. I just ask my sister to read it and tell me if I`m going to be fired.
LAMB: But here is the...
DOWD: You`re not going to read it, are you?
LAMB: Oh, sure, I am! Here is a fellow, though, that works at the newspaper where you work, and he`s writing this about you...
DOWD: No, he didn`t work there then. He was at -- he wrote that for "Slate" or something.
LAMB: Yes. He did.
DOWD: I remember that.
LAMB: At the end...
DOWD: No, no. We hired him after that.
LAMB: At the end of this particular piece of paper I have, it says "A.O. Scott is a film critic at `The New York Times.` "
DOWD: No, he wasn`t then. He had...
LAMB: Here`s what he said...
DOWD: I haven`t even met him, actually.
LAMB: All right. "Like anyone who tries to be funny, Dowd sometimes strains for effect and falls flat. She posed a choice between New York`s Rudolph Giuliani and Washington`s Marion Barry as one between `the mayor who cracks down on crime and the mayor whose crime was crack.` At other times"...
DOWD: You like that line!
LAMB: Yes. "At other times, her glibness gets in the way of her insight. Historians will" -- this is you saying -- "Historians will long ponder how Mrs. Clinton came in as Eleanor Roosevelt and left as Madonna." "They will?" he says. "Like anyone who must produce 700 words of headline-based observation twice a week, she appears on occasion to phone in her copy, as when she imagined a series of U.S. history documentaries directed by Oliver Stone. (`Abigail Adams is really Lucianne Goldberg.`) And she could set a welcome example for pundits everywhere if she took a solemn public oath never to write another word about `Ally McBeal.` "
I can go on, but I mean -- what do you think about this -- that first line about, you know, your humor falls flat?
DOWD: I think it`s -- I`m sure it`s true sometimes. I think humor is very subjective and really hard. And I hope I don`t offend anyone when I say I think it`s really hard for women, too, in particular. And I think that the best humor is a little bit tart. You know, when -- for instance, John Stewart I think is fantastic. I mean, it`s got to be a little bit tart, and you`ve got to be willing to offend people. And sometimes, as a woman, I don`t want to offend people as easily as some guys I know. But I think humor is just subjective.
The only thing that I bring to it which I think is a good quality is I`m willing to fall flat on my face and, you know, try something. And then some people will find it funny and some won`t, or some will like it and some won`t. But I`m willing to try it. And the reason I try -- you know, when I started, Michael Kinsley and Safire said to me, Don`t use humor so much because your -- you`ll seem like a girl. You`ll seem like a girl columnist, you know, if you`re doing it -- everything light. You have to be more serious. And I always think the reverse.
I mean, in ancient kingdoms, they had two people that could tell the truth to the king and not get killed, the jester and the priest. And I can`t be a priest still, so -- I think it`s a really good way to get a truth in, to lure in readers who might otherwise say, Oh, I`ve read this before. You know, it`s -- it`s kind of a funny way to get people interested in something serious. But I always -- the points I make with humor are always serious.
The only point I would disagree with him on is that I phone it in because I -- people may not like a certain column or may not like columns, but I always give it 100 percent effort because I always am very conscious of the fact that it`s the op-ed page of "The New York Times," and that`s an incredible, you know, and rare honor.
LAMB: How long does it take you to write those 700 words?
DOWD: Well, it depends. I mean, you know, the -- as we discussed, because of all the opinions floating around on cable and on blogs, the hard thing is getting -- it`s not -- it`s the opposite of reporting, where you get your reporting and then you can focus in your writing. The hard thing in columns is getting an original idea, and it takes a really long time. And some -- you know, sometimes I feel like I`ve really only had one or two a year, you know, and I`m -- and it`s psychologically draining, more than the actual time. Russell Baker told me one time that he spent, I think he said, eight hours a week on his column. He would spend four on each. And I can`t do that because I`m always agonizing. What is the original idea? What would be a good -- you know, an original approach to this? So it takes me longer, just in agony time.
LAMB: Tony Scott calls you, "the H.L. Mencken of the Clinton era."
DOWD: That`s nice.
LAMB: But he ends it this way. He says, "It`s hard to see how her intemperate wit" -- this is `99 -- "will find adequate targets in either a Gore, Jr., or a W. Bush administration."
DOWD: Well, it`s funny because when I covered the first Bush administration, I sometimes felt sad that my career trajectory and the first Bush`s met because as lovely a guy as he was, I felt -- you know, I -- having specialized in Shakespeare, I wanted -- I was hoping for a president who was darker and someone more like Nixon or Johnson, and complicated. And the first Bush was, you know, a very uncomplicated guy. And that`s why the son`s White House has been such a surprise and revelation, because it completely gave me the darkness and complication and Shakespearean dimensions that had been missing from the first time I covered the first Bush White House.
LAMB: Let me go down a list of people that you write about all the time and just get you to give us a capsule of what comes to mind when I mention them. Dick Cheney.
DOWD: Well, I would say Dick Cheney is the villain of "Bushworld." He is the Darth Vader, the dark father who has brought the Luke Skywalker over to the dark side.
LAMB: Richard Perle.
DOWD: Richard Perle, who is also known, calls himself "the prince of darkness" -- he`s a fantastic -- I mean, these guys are all fantastic characters. They`re just wonderful characters. And he is definitely one of the architects of hijacking the war on terror. He -- in the book, I say that he and Wolfowitz are like the -- it was like an "Oceans 9/11" heist of the war on terror, for their own purposes, and that he and Wolfowitz are, like, the Brad Pitt and George Clooney of the heist, except they don`t quite look as glossy.
LAMB: Who`s the "boy king"?
DOWD: The boy king is the president, and in the introduction, I describe how his dad wrote me this hilarious parody of my "boy king" columns, where he had himself as the old king and Bar as the old queen and the boy king. And he -- like me, he finds it easier to express himself in print and can be more free-wheeling.
LAMB: Douglas Feith.
DOWD: Douglas Feith is the guy -- in Woodward`s book, Colin Powell referred to Doug Feith and his minions as "the Gestapo office." And they`re the office in the Pentagon that was in charge of the reconstruction, and he created a CIA called the Office for Special Plans, his own CIA in the Pentagon when he couldn`t get the information he wanted from the real CIA.
LAMB: Scooter Libby.
DOWD: Scooter Libby is a very charming guy...
LAMB: You know him?
DOWD: I know him -- I have run into him at White House correspondents dinners, and he has a very sort of James Bond air about him. He can do 10 tequila shooters (ph) and show no effect of the alcohol. I mean, he`s a very smooth guy. But he is also one of the neo-con gang that hijacked the war on terror.
LAMB: And what`s he do?
DOWD: He is Dick Cheney`s chief of staff.
LAMB: Donald Rumsfeld. And you affectionately call him Rummy.
DOWD: Yes. I think he`s very cantankerously charismatic, I would call him. He`s a septuagenarian sex symbol.
LAMB: Bill Kristol.
DOWD: Bill Kristol -- well, Bill Kristol I knew really well in the first Bush White House Bill Clinton he was Quayle`s chief of staff. They used to call him Quayle`s brain. And I think Bill Kristol is very, very smart, and I would just say he`s one of the, like, intellectual fathers of the idea that we should have this -- more of a Reaganesque foreign policy based in moral authority and using force to spread American values in the world.
LAMB: A man you call "Wolfie."
DOWD: Wolfowitz, Paul Wolfowitz. He -- Wolfowitz of Arabia. He is Rumsfeld`s deputy, and he is also one of the ones who hijacked the war on terror. Yes.
LAMB: Why do you call Karl Rove Iago?
DOWD: Well, sometimes I call Cheney Iago, too. Karl Rove -- he...
LAMB: Who was Iago, by the way?
DOWD: Iago in Shakespeare is Othello`s -- is Othello`s top military aide, who keeps whispering in his ear, saying that Othello`s wife has been unfaithful, when she hasn`t, because it serves his own purposes. And he makes Othello crazy, and then Othello ends up killing his wife, so...
LAMB: And why Karl Rove?
DOWD: Well, Karl Rove, I guess, was early on because Karl Rove, you know, is kind of -- they call him "Bush`s brain," although I don`t think that`s fair. I think Bush is bright. He`s just -- is more malleable than his father because he hadn`t studied up on foreign policy as much as his dad. Karl Rove, I think -- you know, he -- he was the one -- they found his computer disk or whatever and found out that he intended to -- he thought, you know, he could win majorities in Congress by pushing the war. And so in the beginning of the book, Karl Rove is featured as someone who wants to use war for political purposes. But then Cheney sort of becomes the Iago later.
DOWD: That is Bush I.
LAMB: You like to use that Poppy word.
DOWD: That`s his nickname in the family. I didn`t make that up. That`s what they call him. And they have all kinds of ways to differentiate him from his son. Sometimes he calls himself H.W., you know, his middle initials. And then I was there the night Baker -- in the inaugural speech for Bush II, Baker said, We`re going to have to start calling them 41 and 43, and I reported that quote. And then they all began calling themselves that. So it`s ways they differentiate themselves.
LAMB: What do you suspect would happen if you were to sit down with George W. Bush, President Bush, 43, and talk Shakespeare?
DOWD: Well, I did do a cultural interview with him, and -- you know, and with his dad, and with Kerry and with Gore. And when I do the cultural interviews, it`s interesting because people don`t have to know a lot about culture to come across well in them. And I think Bush and his father both came across well because they didn`t try and pretend they knew more than they did. Bush -- this Bush -- said that he considered baseball, you know, a primary cultural experience and he loved "Cats" and he loved Jack Nicholson.
LAMB: The musical "Cats."
DOWD: Uh-huh. And I think those interviews are just a way to get people off of their speech chops (ph) and get them on a different turf, so that you can see what they`re like. And if they don`t try to be something they`re not, I think they come across very engagingly. And that was contrasted with John Kerry, who`s sort of a Renaissance man and knows a lot, but you know, the first question was about movies, and he reeled off about 41 movies because he was looking for the answer that would please me. You know, he just wanted to get the "right" answer. And there is no right answer, you know, so you can -- it`s very revealing about people.
LAMB: Do you have any suspicion right now who will end up being president?
DOWD: I don`t. I think it`s too volatile. I don`t think any of our political reporters would even venture a guess because there are too many things that are outside their control, in terms of the terror threats and -- and the electorate. You could see Kerry didn`t get a bounce, and that`s because the electorate is so locked in. You know, I`m just -- I`m just hoping we don`t have another deadlock!
LAMB: But as a columnist, though, you`re looking ahead. If John Kerry were to win, what do you think you`d end up with? I mean, it sounds like you didn`t think you`d have much when you went into the Bush administration.
DOWD: Yes, I don`t -- you never know the effect that power will have on ego, you know? And I`ve given up -- you know, in life and in politics, I`ve given up trying to figure out, you know, what sort of leaders people will be. It`s like, you know, anything else in life. You can`t really tell how people will change when they get a lot of power. That`s why that`s a cliche now, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," because it is just a very heady tonic. You know, James Carville has that line, you know, Heaven forfend any politician get a 90 percent approval rating because it just goes straight to their bloodstream.
LAMB: So in effect, what you`re saying is that no matter how many speeches John Kerry gives between now and November the 3rd, or whatever happens in these debates, it really doesn`t matter. We don`t know what they`re going to be like as leaders.
DOWD: No, you can -- no, you can gauge to a certain extent, but I do think the White House -- in my experience, the White House is like a soundproof booth. People get in there, and they can`t seem to hear anything that`s going on right outside the White House grounds. It`s a very odd effect.
And they do -- you know, for instance, the first President Bush, the one thing -- he really seemed to not want to have Richard Darman in his inner circle, but for some reason, Richard Darman ended up in his inner circle, and then he began following Darman`s advice, to his detriment. You know, so they`ll say things they`re definitely not going to do before they get in, and then for some reason, it all changes. I mean, it`s a very strange, you know, weather in the White House. It just changes everyone.
LAMB: Let me go back to the question I asked you about Shakespeare. If you sat down and had a conversation with George W. Bush about Shakespeare, would he know what you know about Shakespeare? And does it matter?
DOWD: I don`t -- I don`t think that was one of his areas of interest, Shakespeare, and it doesn`t -- it doesn`t matter.
LAMB: But how important is it to you, and how important is the study of Shakespeare to what you are as a writer?
DOWD: Well, I try -- what I try to do with humor and with serious columns is to let the reader see politics almost like a Shakespearean drama, in the sense that you have running characters. And you try and let them get to know the characters and the traits they have, so that they can see it as one piece. And obviously, you know, I can only idolize Shakespeare. I can`t really compare to him in any way. But that is what I aim to do.
LAMB: Complete switch. Why did you go to Saudi Arabia? What year did you go there? And what did you see?
DOWD: I went last year, and they -- after 9/11, they -- the Saudi Arabian foreign minister came to "The Times" op-ed board for lunch and said -- and they were on charm offensive. And they said, If you would just come to our country, you would know that we are not -- that we didn`t send these hijackers, that we didn`t, you know, finance them, and you should just come. And so Phil Taubman and I, you know, stood by the door as they left, and we said, We`d really like to come. And so at that...
LAMB: ….with "The Times."
DOWD: Yes. And at that point, he sort of had to arrange it. And we went, and it was fascinating and amazing.
LAMB: Who`d you go with?
DOWD: I went with Phil Taubman.
LAMB: But who from the Saudis took care of you?
DOWD: Oh. There were several people. You know, they gave us a minder from the Ministry of Information. And you know, the Saudis can be very charming, you know?
LAMB: But the fellow -- there was a fellow there from -- went to Georgetown and graduated.
DOWD: Adel. Yes, he wasn`t -- I didn`t see much of him. He happened to be with me the night I was arrested, thank goodness. But I didn`t see much of him on the trip at all.
LAMB: And when you went, did you have to dress a certain way?
DOWD: Well, I asked -- reporters who had covered the Middle East had to dress, and I asked the embassy here. And they said if you wore skirts below the knee, sort of toward the ankle, and loose clothes and long sleeves and a scarf on your head, that that was fine. But that was what I was wearing when I was arrested, or detained or whatever. So that was not enough.
And I think, you know, the arrest was emblematic of the fact of the tension in Saudi Arabia, where they`re trying to be more open and Western, but then they`ve traded off to the Wahhabi clerics and the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, so that even if they are saying, Yes, we`re more open, come here, you know, they`ve traded things off, and these guys are going around arresting women. And this was in the main mall next to the main Western hotel -- connected. So you know, they have a dicey juxtaposition there.
LAMB: Why were you arrested?
DOWD: Well, I went -- you know, Saudi Arabia is so strange because they have -- you know, the whole place is filled with lingerie shops. So on the one hand, you`re not -- women are not -- you know, they think that civilization will crumble if you see a woman`s knee or neck, but on the other hand, there are lingerie shops everywhere. So I went to make some notes on the fact there was a Harvey Nichols and they had all this lingerie, and I thought it would make a funny story at some point. And I was just walking over while I was killing time for our plane to take off one night. And Adel had happened to have dinner with us and...
LAMB: Who is Adel?
DOWD: Adel is the Saudi spokesman. And...
LAMB: Based here?
DOWD: Yes, sometimes. Yes, most of the time. And he is also a, you know, top aide to the crown prince. And so we were walking, and I just took some notes on all the different lingerie at Harvey Nichols and how hilarious it is that all the women are always completely covered, yet there`s more lingerie shops than you would see in Vegas.
And we were on our way back, and these three guys raced up and began, you know, talking in Arabic. And Adel said -- talked to them for about 15 minutes. And the scary part was, it seemed to me he should have just been able to say, I am the top aide to the crown prince, and they should have left. And they didn`t. I mean, they were arguing with him. And it took a really long time. And then he had to get on their cell phone and call someone else.
So that showed me that, you know, there are certain members of the royal family who are not on board with any kind of modernization program. And it took him about 15 or 20 minutes, and Phil thought I was going to miss the plane. It took him 15 or 20 minutes to talk them out of it. And even then, they wanted me to go in one of these shops and buy an abaya and put it on just to walk 10 steps back into my hotel. So...
LAMB: Did you write anything while you were there?
DOWD: You know, I did have to write something while I was there. And the Saudis are all hooked up on Internet, so the ones I was meeting would read it and then comment on it. Yes, but I had to. I couldn`t really wait. I didn`t have anything in the bank, as they say.
LAMB: November 27, 2002 -- "A golden couple chasing away a black cloud. Prince Bandar is know as the Arab Gatsby. Rising from a murky past in a racist society, born in a bedouin tent as the son of an African palace servant impregnated by a Saudi prince, to a glamorous present as a dean -- to a glamorous present as the dean of the Washington diplomatic corps." How does he fit in all this? And why did you write about him?
DOWD: Well, Bandar is also a fantastic, colorful character. He is a jet pilot who can fly a plane upside down, you know, close to the ground. And he -- he was so close to the first President Bush, he was called Bandar Bush. And very -- you know, he has, like, mansions everywhere, in Spain and England, and hunting mansions. And he takes the first Bush pheasant hunting. And you know, he smokes cigars. He`s a very glamorous figure, close to all presidents.
So he is the guy who was on the hot spot after 9/11 because he went from being dean of the diplomatic corps and this very close friend -- he`s a very popular guy. He was close to Tenet. His, you know, sort of -- very close to Cheney, friendly with Bob Woodward. You know, he`s just a real charmer. And suddenly, he was the guy who was the diplomat from the country that -- where, you know, all the -- most of the hijackers were from.
LAMB: You write, "Prince Bandar, the representative of an oil kingdom, is so close to the Bushes and oil dynasty that they nicknamed him Bandar Bush. He contributed over a million dollars to the Bush presidential library." Is that a problem?
DOWD: Well, you know, I guess in "House of Bush, House of Saud," Craig Unger, and then Michael Moore has picked up a lot of that, that, you know, the Saudis do tend to spread around a lot of money and gifts to get favor with people. I was going to say also, you know, Bandar is the one who got the plane full of bin Ladens out of the country because he is so influential. I mean, that`s the kind of thing a Bandar can do.
LAMB: Supposedly, they didn`t leave until the 13th.
DOWD: No, I`m just saying that he arranged for them...
LAMB: Arranged all that.
DOWD: Yes. I`ll tell you a story. For instance, one Saudi I met over there who was back in D.C. after -- you know, while I was -- after we got back, at one point, we were having dinner, and he -- he brought a box out and passed it across the table. And I said, What`s this? And he goes, Open it. And I opened it, and it was -- I forget, a necklace or a bracelet. And I just started laughing. I said, I can`t take this. And he went, Oh. And he took it back, and he handed it to me under the table.
DOWD: And that was such a great metaphor for the -- not -- more than a metaphor, but an illustration of the Saudi technique. And I said, No, no. I can`t take it under the table, either. So...
LAMB: Did you have conclusions about the whole society after being there for what, four days, you say?
DOWD: Well, it`s so fascinating. You know, it`s -- all the men are in white robes, all the women are in black robes. When -- on their Friday, which is their day of worship, you know, you never see a woman on the street. It`s just men and their sons going to worship. And I -- you know, at one point, as I say, I was wearing what I thought I should be wearing, but when I went out even all covered up, by my standards, you know, guys would lean out of cars and scream at me, you know, Cover up, and, Get your abaya on. I mean, it`s -- it`s an amazing country.
I mean, it -- the Saudis were very focused on, you know, why we hadn`t worked more on the Palestinian situation instead of going into Iraq. I mean, that was their obsession over there. And as one of them said to me, you know, they -- they love -- they love America. A lot of them had been to school here or sent their kids to school here. One of them loved Hoosiers basketball. And yet they also were drawn to what Osama did. And as one of them said, you know, it wasn`t that bad to see the bully punched in the face. And they meant us. Like, 9/11, they were talking about. And they had one building that was very modern architecture and had sort of a hole in the top. And an architect there joked, Oh, that`s the building we use to train terrorists. You know, so very, very complicated people.
LAMB: You from time to time refer to the fact that you`re an Irish Catholic. Practicing?
LAMB: You have a chapter here called "Playing the Jesus Card." And you quote George Bush as saying in a speech, "When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that`s what happened to me." George Bush. And then you say, "Translation: You`re either in the Christ club or out of it, on the J.C. team or off. This is the same exclusionary attitude so offensive to those with different beliefs that he showed in 1993 when he said that you must believe in Jesus Christ to enter heaven. Mr. Bush has since conceded that only, quote, `God decides` who goes to heaven, not George W. Bush."
As a practicing Catholic, and you hear all this talk in politics about God, what do you think? And you obviously …
DOWD: Well, my dad -- you know, my dad had two precious possessions. One was his scrapbook of Al Smith running for president, the first Catholic to run for president, in `28. And one was his big picture of JFK. He loved JFK. And I think -- you know, I grew up with the perspective of JFK. Our hearts would stop, you know, when the subject of religion came up because we wanted so much, when I was little, for him to be president and be the first Catholic president.
And in order to do that, he had to keep religion completely out of the race. You know, he had to prove that the pope wasn`t going to have a tunnel going straight to the West Wing, and he had to, you know, try hard to make it clear that religion and church and state were going to be separated.
And then, you know, now it`s the opposite. I mean, you see politicians and this president bringing their religion in as a way to, you know, kind of sell themselves. So it may be just my background, but I just -- I don`t like it.
LAMB: What if they really believe it?
DOWD: Well, I -- no, I`m not questioning his belief, of course. I respect...
LAMB: But I mean...
DOWD: No, I respect his belief. I just don`t think they should bring it so much into the political arena.
LAMB: But why not?
DOWD: Because I -- for instance, you know, this amazing thing that Bush told Bob Woodward, where Bob Woodward said -- was pressing him, saying, But why didn`t you talk to your father? He was the only other president who had ever gone to war with Saddam. Shouldn`t you have, you know, just asked his advice, gotten his counsel before you went to war with the same dictator, you know? And Bush said, I consulted a higher father. You know, and I just think, you know, again, it`s kind of -- it`s giving the sense that God is -- you know, that he`s on a mission, that the war is a mission from God. And I think you have to stay away from this language that implies to Muslims that it`s a holy war.
I mean, of course, Abraham Lincoln brings in -- you know, brought in God in a very beautiful way in his speeches. And of course, you can bring it in, but I think not to the point where it`s a political card.
LAMB: The last two sentences in your book, in the column that you run, and it`s from June 10. This is the last you wrote that got into the book -- 2004. "Whether he was right or wrong, Ronald Reagan was exhilarating. Whether he is right or wrong, George W. Bush is a bummer."
DOWD: Well, it`s funny because he comes across -- he presents himself as this world-class optimist, but at the same time, he`s sort of insulted and blown off a lot of the world. And then, you know, it`s an interesting contrast with Kerry because Kerry comes across just, you know, his way, his look, as a lugubrious loner. And yet he`s -- he`s campaigning on the idea that we need more friends and allies in the world and we have to go back to our traditional structures of allies. So it`s an interesting dynamic there.
LAMB: How many columns in your book, do you know? Did you count?
LAMB: We`re out of time.
DOWD: OK. Thank you.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book, Maureen Dowd, our guest, columnist for "The New York Times," called "Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk."
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.