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13 May 1999

The Howler profile (part II): Their best shot?

Synopsis: It was disarming to think that Dowd-on-guns was the best that the press corps could muster.

In the D.C. Matrix
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 4/28/99

Sugar Lips Rips N.R.A.
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 5/5/99

Guns and Poses
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 5/9/99

At the end of her slam on those hypocritical Gores, Dowd signaled disinterest in critics of Hollywood. “A week after Littleton, the preaching [about Hollywood] is easy,” she said--two paragraphs after saying that White House concern about movie violence was “too often tailored not to offend their donors.” Yep. The White House was doing too much preaching. Then again, it wasn’t doing enough.

Dowd would soon voice a stand against guns. But here were her end-thoughts on Tinseltown:

DOWD (4/28): Blaming Hollywood and the culture is a glib solution anyway. It’s much easier than doing the hard work of financing and mounting a campaign for meaningful gun legislation, which might take years.

We suppose this means that violent movies are not a big part of youth crime and angst--though Dowd, rather typically, never cites evidence supporting this implied view. She also implies it would be more productive to go after guns--but gives no evidence to support that view either. But on May 5, after discussing who’s roly-poly and who looks like a sparrow, Dowd gets around to expressing her views on the need for expanded gun curbs. Well--she doesn’t quite get around to explaining her views. She starts out with a guess about motive:

DOWD (5/5): In her own controlled way, Mrs. Dole made a bold move at the G.O.P. dinner in [New Hampshire]. She called for stiffer regulation of guns, observing, “I don’t think you need an AK-47 to defend your family.” Incredibly, one man booed her when she urged gun safety locks to protect children.

Was it incredible? Or was it just lucky? The lone booer got Dole a good hunk of press; some scribes spun up the amount of the booing. Making a statement some audience won’t like is a standard part of modern campaigning. We don’t know why it would strike one as “bold,” or why a pundit would necessarily say that such conduct shows “courage” (as Dowd says, in her next paragraph). Indeed, right after calling Dole bold and courageous, Dowd says that Dole’s move was good politics:

DOWD: Of course, you can be sure when Mrs. Dole’s pollster, Linda DiVall, publicly praised her guts, that the candidate’s stand was also smart politics. She is pitching her “let’s make history” candidacy to middle-of-the-road soccer moms who are turned off by Charlton Heston...

So was it a bold and courageous stand? Or was it simply interest-group politics? Dowd displays no way of knowing, but she types DiVall’s spin all the same. It’s all part of the way that a Maureen Dowd column tends to wallow in motive and character. She sidesteps substance--which in principle is knowable--and instead spends her time talking all about motive, which is less salient, and where the truth is never clear.

Dowd spends four long paragraphs describing Dole’s doings at a Dairy Queen drop-in. She gets around to judging substance only in last time at bat:

DOWD: Mrs. Dole’s position may have been calculated, but it was also correct. And this bite wasn’t dainty.

No explanation why Dole was correct; we learn more about chocolate sundaes than we do about that. And so we moved on to Dowd’s May 9 column to learn the merits of gun legislation. In that piece, Dowd goes on a gun-shopping trip to a suburban mall. Somehow or other, the trip helps Dowd see where she stands on post-Littleton issues:

DOWD (5/9): It was a shopping trip that left me even more dubious about the President’s stressing the culture of violence as much as the machines of violence.

Why does Dowd’s trip produce that judgment? Dowd never bothers to say. But in the second half of her column, she backs movie moguls who skipped Clinton’s violence summit:

DOWD: But Hollywood was right to boycott another politically opportunistic gabfest. As Sean Daniel, a Hollywood producer, puts it: “The heads of movie, television, and recording industries have their share of responsibility. But they are being made to stand up as symbols of much more complex behavior, a mix of evil, DNA, parenting, isolation...People invoke Hollywood as a catchall for all the influences that come off any screen, including the Internet and video games.”

Moments before, Dowd had criticized Clinton for “stressing the culture of violence as much as the machines of violence.” Now she was citing stock mogul cant about movies somehow being singled out. The self-contradiction of which we’d been warned was being exhibited all through her columns. The mocking analysts licked their lips, smiling wickedly at our discomfort.

Well, after quoting a straw man from director Rob Reiner, Dowd again states a view in her closing paragraph. Clinton “deserves credit for his push on gun control,” she says, but he should go all the way and ban handguns. In the course of three full columns on the subject, Dowd has given no reason for believing that this can help; has given no reason for believing movie violence doesn’t matter; hasn’t said if her program is politically viable; and hasn’t said how she’s able to read everyone’s motives. What has she told us? She has told us how Elizabeth Dole orders ice cream at Dairy Queen; how much shotguns cost, as compared to pink sweaters; she’s described the Gores’ taste in major movies this season; and she’s limned the state of ten or twelve people’s souls.

Well, the analysts were actually laughing out loud, as we put down the clips from our three-piece review. Could this be the best of the Washington pundits? The best that the press corps can do?

You were there: Was Hollywood being singled out? Dowd approvingly cites a statement saying that they were. For the record, here’s Tuesday’s New York Times editorial, describing who was at the White House conference:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (5/11/99): The list of participants who gathered...included representatives from the Administration, from television and motion pictures, from the gun industry...There were...executives from the worlds of the Internet and video games.

What was the point of citing stale cant implying that Hollywood was being singled out? And can it possibly be true, that this kind of work is the best that our pundits can manage?