Even the airplane-crash attacks of Sept. 11 could not stop the cultural list-makers from constructing new lists of what's in and out. At the top of the "Out" list is the Age of Irony. After The Era of Detachment, the appeal of laughing at America from the heights of disdain seems instantly to have dried up.
The one journalist who embodies the spirit of The Age of Irony is Maureen Dowd, the flippant fraulein and heckling hermit of the New York Times editorial page. She made herself a name and earned herself a Pulitzer Prize by dunking nearly every prominent head in Washington into her bottomless pit of contempt. She didn't have the time to argue policy, nor did she need to do much homework. It was enough to go to movies looking for new pop-culture references to salt throughout her work.
Now she is out of her element in a serious time with no taste for frivolity. She is a fish out of water at a time when readers are starved for real news and wildly supportive of their leaders. God knows she is out to lunch on sophisticated military and foreign-policy subjects. When she covered the first Bush presidency as a so-called reporter, White House aides joked about who knew less about foreign policy, Dowd or White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
But Dowd is Dowd, and none of that is stopping her. Watch out. General Dowd has gone to war, and the friendly fire will be intense.
Unlike most columnists, Dowd never falls back on an ideology or throbs with passion for a cause. She's simply (as Newsweek saluted her) a "Titan of 'Tude," a banshee with her finger in the wind, and she'll go wherever the negativity feels juiciest. She is the perfect poster girl for the qualities many Americans despise about the press -- thin-skinned, lightheaded and omnivorously insulting. In the eyes of these sophisticados, everyone is a bumbler, except those savants in the press corps, whose throbbing brains burst with enlightenment.
The differing pace of the war on terrorism in its earliest stages display Miss Dowd doing her best Goldilocks impersonation, never finding the porridge that's just right. The CIA is "risibly incompetent," she pronounces. The defense budget is utterly wasted, she proclaims. "We spend $300 billion a year on planes and bombs and military marvels but still can't faze Taliban warriors who pop up out of the charred earth and mock us as ineffectual." Our public health system is "woefully unprepared." In short, "Our institutions are lumbering as they try to keep up with the simple, supple, clever paladins of Islam."
Don't get her started on the Northern Alliance: "the lame rebel force with its wooden saddles and line of old Russian tanks get sillier and sillier, like scenes out of the Marx Brothers or Woody Allen's 'Bananas.'"
Oops. These pearls of wisdom were written just before the Northern Alliance, backed by a most un-ineffectual U.S. air attack, captured Mazar-e-Sharif, making the Taliban collapse like a house of cards in the north and scamper fecklessly toward the south. Was Dowd cowed? Of course not. It's another day, another disaster. "We give the Northern Alliance an air force, and they embarrass us with savage force."
But General Dowd is funniest when she's ordering her fellow generals around. Can't you just see the Joint Chiefs of Staff rolling their eyes as she attempts to sound so bloody authoritative? "The Air Force has a bomb it can steer horizontally from an F-15E into the mouth of a cave, but we are not likely to get bin Laden that way." I bet you a month ago, this woman didn't know an F-15E from a Q-Tip. Most undereducated people have the decency to keep quiet on their worst subjects or simply report what the real experts are saying. But Dowd thinks the war is a chance to play make-believe Defense Secretary, as if everyone will pretend along with her that she has a clue.
The recent successes in the war in Afghanistan unquestionably show the good sense of President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and their commanders in the field. No one expects generals like Tommy Franks to psychoanalyze the marriage of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, and somehow find a strange way to connect it to Washington. So perhaps Dowd should stick to her favorite subjects and approaches, and leave the war to the professional soldiers and hard-bitten correspondents who know what they're talking about.