A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Columnist Maureen Dowd’s mile high moments

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is one of the most influential opinion writers of this era. Her articles created a trailblazing path for women commentators worldwide. Charlotte Grieve catches up with her in Melbourne.

Columnist Maureen Dowd’s mile high moments
Words by Charlotte Grieve

Donald Trump first considered running for president in 1999. He wanted to give a speech in Miami to Cuban Americans and took Maureen Dowd along for the ride.

En route, the acclaimed New York Times writer vividly remembers the fake French impressionist artwork hanging on the walls, the junk food and a double bed.

“I said to him, ‘What on Earth makes you think you could be president?’ ”

The celebrity business man looked at her in shock and replied: “I get the best ratings on Larry King.”

When asked if ratings alone could secure him the presidency, Dowd recalls his reply: “Yes and Melania has been on a lot of magazine covers and my name is on the General Motors building five times.”

That was the beginning of what Dowd now refers to as the “ego arithmetic” of the 45th President of the United States. An obsession with numbers and a pervasive narcissism.

Speaking at the sold-out event ‘Dangerous Ideas’ last Sunday at the National Gallery of Victoria, Dowd shared stories from a lifetime of political commentary. She described the late Senator John McCain as a “really cool guy”, Trump as a “toon” and Obama as “dazzling”.

Not a decade later, Dowd found herself on yet another private jet with yet another presidential hopeful. This time, it was Barack Obama. He had wanted to add some “foreign policy cred” to his campaign tour, so invited a number of journalists to fly with him to Europe, during which they were promised 15-minute interviews.

On the plane, Obama asked to be alone “with Maureen”.

“I thought great, I’m going to be the new Scotty Reston. It’s not going to be the old white guys anymore. He’s going to give me a big scoop and we’re going to have this great columnist-president relationship.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, makes a rare visit to Australia to share insights from a lifetime of political commentary. Photo: Charlotte Grieve.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, makes a rare visit to Australia to share insights from a lifetime of political commentary. Photo: Charlotte Grieve.

But this fanciful relationship never eventuated. Once they were alone, Obama turned to Dowd and said, “you’re really irritating” before concluding the meeting.

Dowd laughed in reflection as she flicked her red hair. “I just thought, ‘Oh my god this hot, future president is already done with me.’ It was very Mr Darcy.”

Dowd worked as a metropolitan reporter for the first 12 years writing for the New York Times. She says this time made her more of a “political observer” than an ideological columnist.

“A lot of columnists, or most columnists operate this way from one ideology or another, but that just isn’t how I do it.”

In 1995, Dowd became the masthead’s first female columnist where four years later she won a Pulitzer prize for her coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.

Her articles were syndicated in The Age, described by former editor Michael Gawenda as “witty and vituperative”, prompting him to encourage more local female opinion writers.

This year, Dowd has spent much of her time writing scathing editorials about Trump’s “astonishing presence” in the White House.

“I like to call him the Rosemary’s Baby of reality TV, social media and politics. Of course, the world has never seen anything like Donald Trump and hopefully we won’t see it again.”

But she says that she is not as “scared or pessimistic as most Americans”. As record levels of female candidates campaign across America for seats at the House, Senate and statewide executive levels, Dowd describes Trump as a “revivifying force” for feminism, liberalism and journalism.

“We’re going to have all these new women in state houses and Congress thanks to Donald Trump. He’s put several women on the bestseller list who trashed him. Not to mention he’s revived bars and shrinks.”

But will Trump be impeached? The veteran journalist points to the unsuspecting accountant, Allen Weisselberg, as holding Trump’s fate in his hands. As Robert Mueller’s investigation closes in on financing corruption, tax evasion and foreign interference, the Trump Organisation’s CFO could be the one to put the final nail in the coffin.

“He knows all the secrets and where everybody is buried,” she says.

“It’s so much like the scene in these movies like The Untouchables where the slumpy accountant turns out to be in the middle of the plot.”

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Qiyun (Gwen) Liu
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
  • Editor-In-Chief: Andrew Dodd
  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
Winner — BEST PUBLICATION 2016 Ossie Awards