Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times op-ed writer Maureen Dowd and the Times’ Chief Washington Correspondent Carl Hulse brought “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to the Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 20 for a conversation on the 2016 presidential election. Dowd is most recently the author of The Year of Voting Dangerously, a collection of her columns on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and new, original essays by Dowd and her siblings. The Collegian sat down with Dowd and Hulse after the event.
When you’re writing, is it okay to be clear about your political views, or, in the case of op-ed writing, to be clearly partisan?
Dowd: Sometimes readers will write me and they’ll be like “You’re so biased.” I write back, “That’s what they pay me for!” I was a political reporter for 20 years, but now they pay me to give my opinion and unlike all the other columnists at the Times I’m not from one ideological point of view or the other. I do it more like a Shakespearean play, where it’s about power and how power warps people or how they rise to the occasion. So, that’s what I’m trying to write about. But if I want to say something that’s coming from the left or the right, that is my job — that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Not when I was a political reporter, but now.
What do you think of those columnists who do take the more ideological perspectives?
Dowd: Oh, it’s fine. I’m jealous of them, or envious of them, because I would like to have one group that always loved me. You know, there’s one group that always loves Paul Krugman, and they just love him. It’s hard, because my family is mad at me. My family is conservative, so they’re mad at me when a Republican president is in. I [was] critical when W. was in, and I criticized the run-up to the Iraq War and the handling of the Iraq War and my older brother Michael — I went home to a family dinner — and Michael said, “You know, you’re always criticizing W. If there was a hurricane, you’d blame it on W.” And then there was Hurricane Katrina, and I blamed it on W. So it got really tense with my family sometimes. And in the same way, Times readers, many of whom are liberal, get really upset at me if there’s a Democratic president in and I’m critiquing that president. There’s never any warm place for me.
Hulse: For me, totally different, because the way I do my business is I have to have the trust from both sides that I’m going to be an honest broker, because I do a lot of business with Republicans, right? And if I’m perceived as a biased person, they’re just not going to do it. Now they may all think, oh, you’re part of the liberal New York Times, but I think I’ve kinda demonstrated over the years that I’ve been able to handle this fairly and gotten the trust relationship, and that’s how you find real things out. So doing these things with Maureen is dangerous for me, cause I’m always gonna slip and say something terrible that’s going to get me! Now I also write a column, but it’s a news column — On Washington. I was doing this thing with Mitch McConnell and he started ribbing me. He goes, “Well, I know Carl you don’t agree with me ‘cause of those quasi-opinion pieces you’ve been writing.”
Dowd: Oh, that’s funny.
Hulse: I’m a much more analytical person, but there is this huge trend in the media towards partisan journalism one way or the other, because of what Maureen’s talking about: It gets a response, right?
Dowd: It gets you clicks, and they’re looking for clicks.
Hulse: We may be headed down that road.
Dowd: It’s sort of a concern about how you handle it with Twitter, because young journalists who are news reporters can tweet out things, and to get a snazzy tweet they might be giving their opinion, and then the candidate will come back and say, “I saw that tweet, you’re cut off.” So they have to be really careful, and we haven’t established a lot of rules about that for news reporters. It doesn’t matter in the opinion kingdom, but for news…
Hulse: It’s been dangerous.
Dowd: I think they’re gonna have to deal with that, only because you don’t want to get cut off. As a Times reporter, you want to have access to your candidates.
Hulse: Plus, I’m not a person who just assumes that I’m right, right? And I know what’s best, or whatever.
Dowd: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Hulse: I want to hear it, right? You tell me your thing, maybe you can convince me.
Dowd: Well, that’s why my column isn’t ideological, because I was a political reporter for 20 years, so I wouldn’t even know how to do a column from the left or the right. I can only do a politically-reported column.
This question is more for [Ms. Dowd]. How much of your persona in your op-eds is natural, and how much is intentional? Can your friends and family recognize the Maureen Dowd in your columns as the Maureen Dowd that they know?
Dowd: Well, that’s funny because I do try and use humor a lot, even in serious situations. You know, using Jonathan Swift as a model to kind of, it’s an alluring way to get people to listen, so they can listen to a serious point if you put it in a humorous package sometimes. But anyway sometimes I try to be funny, and my mom said to me, “You know, you’re only funny in print, you’re not funny in person.” [Laughs] So that was pretty funny.
Hulse: That’s not true. She’s not funny in print. [Both laugh]
Dowd: Well, Carl is really funny. He’s really funny.
What do you two know or understand about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump from your years covering them that no one in the public seems to understand?
Dowd: I feel like Carl has a rare insight into Hillary because he covered her as a senator and they had a good relationship, and I feel that with each year the emotional wall around her gets a little thicker, so even some of her own colleagues …
Hulse: I think the thing about Hillary Clinton from my experience is that she’s personally funny.
Dowd: Oh, yeah, everyone says that. This is a joke we have in the office cause her aides will always say, if you could only get to know her and have a drink with her, she’s a hoot in private. So they all say it.
Hulse: She does have a great sense of humor.
Dowd: Then she never actually goes to have a drink with anyone, so how do we know?
Hulse: But she is funny, and she can be very engaging. I grew up in Illinois and she’s from Illinois. She’s a very recognizable person to me. I’ve known her. She, for some reason, is unable to get her real personality across. She either is containing it too strongly or when it comes out it seems phony. I don’t know why considering she’s married to perhaps the best politician in generations, a guy who is great at putting out his personality even if it is phony. He’s the guy that grabs your hand, you’re the only guy. And she has a little bit of that, and she’s just not able to do that.
Dowd: Before we get to Trump I wanted to say about Hillary there are all these funny things in the Podesta emails where at one point they’re scripting her off-the-record comments to reporters, which is just crazy. The reason you go off-the-record is so you can be more frank, but they were scripting her off the record comments.
Hulse: There’s a big danger in political reporting now, that the reporters don’t ever even get to the candidates, let alone the chief of staff. There’s no way because the media’s so big, they won’t let anyone in and I think that’s a bad thing that no one in journalism knows these people enough to really convey the truth about them. They’re just not allowed in. It used to be we were all allowed in. You’d get in there and you’d get to talk to these people.
Dowd: Hillary, you know, she had a really good relationship with the hill reporters and with her state department reporters. I think she said in an interview that she thought the state department reporters dealt more with issues and that the national political reporters are all about personality questions and she doesn’t like that. But there was a funny story where Mark Landler, our state department reporter, they were somewhere abroad on a trip and she was having a tequila sunrise with her reporters and then she went to meet her Chinese counterpart and her reporters got worried that it would be imbalanced so Mark brought the Chinese guy a tequila sunrise to even the playing field. So I think in a way it’s a missed opportunity for her, because when she does open up a little bit to reporters she seems to really do well with them. The one other thing I wanted to say about Hillary is, so in the emails that just came out, Mark Leibovich, our reporter, did an interview with her and they have a quote from the interview and she seems very natural and genuine, she’s talking about the problems with gender, but then they wouldn’t put it on the record. They would put one comment about a moose on the record. So even when she does come across well, they’re so paranoid. Her aides are paranoid and she’s paranoid, so the combination is they’re just always behind this wall. And as Carl says that’s a pressure cooker, that it’s not gonna behoove her well as president.
And what do you understand about Trump that no one in the public seems to?
Dowd: I think, because I interviewed him for a long time starting in the 90s, I think I know that he’s the most shocked person to find himself where he is and that he would be shocked if you said to him, you’re a racist, you’re a sexist, you’re a bigot, because in his own head he isn’t those things. He doesn’t realize that what you say at the microphone is who you are. And that because he has gone to all these dark places and taken the country to all these dark places that is now who he is. I think he’s going to be really stunned when he goes back to New York and he is treated as kind of a pariah and his name is like poison on any product.
Is this current presidential election a blessing or a curse for your field?
Dowd: Well often as a journalist you’re very schizophrenic, because what you want as a citizen is the exact opposite of what you want as a journalist. And as you know it’s a very weird thing about our profession that often somebody’s worst day is your best day because that’s a big story or something. So, again, the best thing for journalists would be Trump as president.
Hulse: That’s my old “bad for America, good for Carl” [saying]. Chaos is good.
Dowd: Obviously as a citizen you want something else.
Hulse: One thing I’ve heard from political reporters is, oh, I’m so burned out, I can’t wait ‘till it’s over. And I’m like, I don’t know why you want this to be over, this is your glory days in a way, and you’re going to be non-relevant. You only get to cover a crazy race like this once in a while. I want to say one thing about Trump that the thing that I got from meeting him was his hair was actually a little bit better in person. [Both laugh] I actually thought it was.
Dowd: And you didn’t think he was glowing so much.
Hulse: Yeah, he didn’t look quite so bizarre.
Dowd: But also you know the really strange thing? And I remember this because I’ve been interviewing lots of his friends. He can be kind of charming.
Hulse: Oh, totally!
Dowd: I don’t think the American public has seen that at all.
Hulse: Well, he’s lost it steadily.
Dowd: If he had run as the kind of charming guy who helped women get into the construction company and whose employees really like him, I think it would have been a whole different ballgame. He can be fun to be around, but then he just went down so many poisonous roads that he canceled out that guy. I mean, he’s aggrieved, and he’s attracting aggrieved people, and then they’re on a downward shame spiral.
In three words, what makes a good op-ed piece?
Dowd: Oh, hm. We have all these audience development people now who tell us what’s popular, how to get clicks. The Beyonce story was big, Prince dying was big, so Carl and I are always joking how we can get Beyonce and Prince into our headlines. But, I mean, I’m happiest doing humor because I think that’s a really great way to get across fun points and also serious points.
Hulse: I would say in three words, engaging, sharp and surprising.
Dowd: But not snarky! [Both laugh]
Hulse: Saucy only!
Dowd: Saucy! That has to be one of the words.
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.