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Dowd's Snark Shoots Up, Down

Posted: 02/03/09 03:43 PM ET

David Denby's new book, Snark, identifies New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd as "the most gifted writer of snark in the country." Perhaps, but I've noticed the Queen of Snark has been throwing a lot of her gifts to the winds over the past year. The reason, I can say with some certainty, is that she's finally met a man who can make her happy. His name is Barack Obama.

This realization first crept up on me reading the column she filed the day after the election. In it, she shared a yearning to wander down to the Lincoln Memorial and celebrate Obama's victory by "climbing up into Abe's lap."

"It's a $50 fine," she wrote. "But it'd be worth it."

Here's a woman who's never met a politician she couldn't savage with snark -- a woman who has described John Edwards as "a Breck Girl," Bill Clinton as "the Lyin' King" and Dan Quayle as a "dancing hamster." And yet here she was, dissolving into the little Catholic schoolgirl she used to be. The sentiment was so wildly uncharacteristic, I suspected the endless campaign had made the columnist woozy, and a little time off would restore her to her reliably snarky self. But since she returned in January after six weeks of R&R, she still seems to be tamed by the man who held her gaze at the inauguration -- the one she lavishly described as "the new commander in chief" who "showed he was in command of the script and the country."

Where has the Maureen we know gone -- and who is this in her place? I decided I had to investigate and so I set out to scour her work over the past year. What I believe I've discovered is an undying ardor that, hidden amongst the Clinton, Palin and Bush snark-fests, has somehow escaped widespread notice.

Essentially, I took every column Dowd wrote in 2008 up through the election and I dissected it, sometimes sentence by sentence, according to snarkable subject: Obama, the Clintons, John McCain, Sarah Palin, figures in the Bush administration and "others," e.g. Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. I then set about separating each subject's material into two piles: snarky and unsnarky.

How could I tell the difference? I grant that identifying snark is a highly subjective pursuit, but an obsessive consumption of punditry has allowed me to develop a sort of Potter Stewart "I know it when I see it" eye.

Denby takes up a significant portion of his book working to define snark, but this passage will suffice for me: "Snark is hostile as spit ... hazing on the page. It prides itself on wit, but it's closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying." In political commentary especially, snark serves no constructive purpose; it doesn't criticize or advise in any sort of helpful way. No doubt snarkers can be devilishly entertaining, but basically, they're just inviting readers along to point and laugh.

Here's a classic example of Dowd snark, from last March, directed at her go-to target of the past eight years, George W. Bush:

Maybe the president is just putting on a good face to keep up American morale, the way Herbert Hoover did after the crash of '29, when he continued to dress in a tuxedo for dinner. Or maybe the old Andover cheerleader really believes his own cheers, and that prosperity will turn up any time now, just like the W.M.D. in Iraq.

Now here's another Dowd excerpt, published last January, that, though brimming with her unmistakable wry style, is uncharacteristically bereft of any venom:

The Obama revolution arrived not on little cat feet in the Iowa snow but like a balmy promise, an effortlessly leaping lion hungry for something different, propelled by a visceral desire among Americans to feel American again.

I found more lines like this in my analysis. A lot more. I found other things, too.

Back in December 2006, Dowd snarkishly coined the nickname "Obambi," but by early March 2008, she had redubbed him "Obambi-No-More," renouncing her invention, never to use it again. Instead, she employed other, more fawning descriptions, inviting comparisons to "preternaturally gifted young heroes in mythical tales" and "the most cherished hero in chick-lit history," Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy. When she imagined Obama in the White House, she envisioned a "cool, smart, elegant, reasonable, literary, witty, decent West Wing sort of president."

Over the months, Dowd also proved remarkably protective of Obama, minimizing the damage done after he lifted lines from a Deval Patrick speech, defending him against criticism that he was exploiting his children in the media, praising him for "sophisticated damage-control" in the Jeremiah Wright fiasco -- all incidents during the primary campaign that she otherwise would have found irresistibly snarkable if they had involved any other candidate. By the time Obama cinched the nomination, the greatest modern purveyor of snark was specifically praising him for not being given to "snarky remarks." Was a self-loathing id now peeking through?

But Dowd was perhaps most revealing in her brief one-on-one encounters with the candidate himself, which she unself-consciously described in lingering detail. Here's what she wrote when she accompanied Obama on his globetrotting last July:

After 200,000 people thronged to see Obama at the Victory Column in Berlin, christening him 'Redeemer' and 'Savior,' it turned out [French President Nicolas Sarkozy] was also Obamarized, as the Germans were calling the mesmerizing effect.

"'You must want a cigarette after that,' I teased the candidate after the amorous joint press conference, as he flew from Paris to London for the finale of his grand tour."

You must want a cigarette after that? So much for journalistic detachment. The woman was now just flirting.

But enough with the anecdotal evidence. Let's go to the actual numbers. After dividing the gathered material by subject and separating the snarky from the not snarky, I totaled word counts, figured percentages, and what I came up with erases any doubt that something has happened to Maureen Dowd:

2009-02-03-Snark0chart.jpg

As you can see, the snarky-to-not snarky ratio is roughly inverted for Obama and the Clintons -- Dowd's primary subjects in the 11-month period. Yes, Obama was on the pointed end of Dowd's snark on occasion, but then I'm not arguing she's completely changed her stripes. What also stands out in the chart is the fact that Dowd wasn't reflexively snarky with the Clintons -- particularly Hillary (Bill rarely got a pass). John McCain turned out to be hardly more than a bit player in all of her campaign commentary, snarky or not. (I'd argue the Obama aura was having an overall gentling effect on Dowd except the Sarah Palin snarkapalooza neatly refutes that.) None of this is to say Dowd didn't criticize Obama or make uncomplimentary judgments. She did - but invariably she did so in a far more sympathetic and constructive fashion than she did with snark.

Looking at Dowd's swoon in toto, I don't pick up on any lurking libidinous desire (she seems equally charmed, by the way, with Michelle Obama and the two Obama girls). Instead, what Dowd's words exude is more a crush of the Catholic schoolgirl variety -- starry-eyed and hero-worshipful. In his book, Denby describes Dowd as "essentially sour and without hope," but my evidence, I believe, proves him wrong. After a lifetime of extreme exposure to the duplicities and dishonesties of politics, Dowd is finally encountering someone who can pierce a cynic's heart of stone. Dowd is finally allowing herself to hope.

The columnist has built her reputation on the armchair psychoanalysis of politicians, and this revelation invites its own. One clue comes in a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, in which she reminisced about her youth. "I was not as into the Sixties as I should have been," she wistfully told Rose.

What I should have realized is that I thought there would be plenty of time to have these passionate discussions about feminism and civil rights and all these things. And as it turned out, there wasn't ... The Sixties had that wonderful passion to it. Certainly it had excesses, but people discussed serious things and cared and wanted to change the world, and kids thought they could change the world.

This suggests, of course, that Dowd, who turned 18 in 1970, not only harbored the idealism of that youth-driven culture, but that she also let the era mostly pass her by. Now, it seems, Barack Obama has given her a second chance.

Granted, he's also imperiling her well-deserved reputation. But I'm happy for Dowd. We should all allow ourselves to hope; it's among our most elemental longings, as Obama has so astutely understood. But I'm also worried for Dowd. Schoolgirl crushes are inherently based on unrealistic expectations. Hero worship inevitably invites disappointment. Dowd's lifelong singlehood suggests no man has ever measured up, and I wonder how Obama will be any different.

I can only hope.