Thursday, April 20, 2006

My novel about Maureen Dowd that is not really about Maureen Dowd, I swear

Just realized I started a point in this morning's post that I never finished.

I wrote that Maureen Dowd set the tone for the negative coverage of Al Gore in 2000, which is an awfully sweeping generalization, even for me.

But Dowd did invent a character she called Al Gore in her columns and I think that character came to be mistaken by many of her colleagues for the real thing...or, rather, they kept mistaking the real Al Gore for Mo Dowd's fictional character.

During the Clinton years, Dowd was working on a novel the notes for which she published regularly in her column. The novel was about a rampaging horndog who happened to be President of the United States and his evil castrating shrew of a wife, an vainglorious pair of narcissists who never did anybody any good unless they were sure it would further their insatiable ambitions. She called her main characters Bill and Hillary, as if they were modeled after the President and his First Lady.

Probably they were really modelled after people Dowd knew in college and hated.

Mo Dowd hated Bill because she hated Hill and she hated Hill because Hillary reminded her of the girl back at Catholic U. who stole the BMOC away from her. Al Gore reminded her of the great guy who preferred to stay faithful to his boring but curvaceous blonde sweetheart back home to giving skinny, redheaded Mo a tumble.

Obviously I'm doing a Mo Dowd on Mo Dowd, using real people to write a fiction. The difference between us is that I'm not about to try to convince you that my fictional Mo Dowd is the same as the real Mo Dowd, although I think they are close, as close as Dowd thought her fictional Clintons were to the ones living in the White House.

I think I'm on to something because I knew Maureen Dowd back in college.

Not the real Maureen Dowd, mind you. I knew girls who were like the Maureen Dowd I see in the person who wrote those columns about the Clintons.

I knew an intense, "intellectual," ambitious young writer who was eaten up with jealousy, insecurity, and self-loathing whenever she thought about people she decided were her sexual and professional rivals, often mixing up the two. I knew a different girl who tried, repeatedly, to get a guy she knew had a girlfriend, not back home but at another college, and when he wouldn't respond, she turned into his worst enemy.

Were either these girls young Maureen Dowds?

I have no way of knowing.

That's why I'm calling this speculation fiction.

Dowd called hers satire. But she meant it to be taken for the real thing.

Dowd, along with many journalists at the time, gave herself persmission to psychoanalyze the Clintons. She and her colleagues thought that they were smart enough, well enough versed in human behavior, and wise enough in the ways of the world to read the minds and plumb the souls of a couple of complete strangers.

Surprise, surprise, all this armchair psychology revealed that the Clintons were a pair of selfish, self-centered, power-crazed, celebrity-mad Yuppies on the make.

So of course they were up to no good with their Whitewater investments.

Of course those missing notes from Hillary's old law firm would show her up as a scheming liar.

Of course Bill kept that airplane sitting on a runway so he could get an expensive haircut.

Of course he did have sex with that...


Unfortunately, Bill really was a horndog.

But of course he deserved to be impeached and even convicted.

The dangerous attraction of writing psychological case studies and calling it opinion is that you can be right without any real evidence for it. That's because people do tend to fall into types and then conform to type and this makes it possible to "know" a person without ever having met that person. The odds are excellent that you know or knew someone an awful lot like them.

When it was a person you knew a long time ago it might have been so long ago that you've forgotten him or her. All you remember is their type and their type's effect on you.

Years later, looking at a stranger and thinking you've got that stranger figured out, it's more than likely that what you're really doing is remembering somebody else, that person from the past the stranger has reminded you of.

This doesn't mean you're wrong about the stranger.

But it does mean that you don't have any real proof that you're right, so you shouldn't try to pass off your insight as a fact, which is what Dowd did.

Fiction can be true, truer even than journalism, when it's good. But it has to be labeled fiction. Called anything else it's just lies and gossip.

Journalists have a hard time of it. They meet an awful lot of people, many of whom want to lie to them. They have to make judgments on the fly. They have deadlines that make it nearly impossible for them to do the kind of considered and objective thinking about human nature that novelists and playwrights and short story writers do. This makes it a really good idea for them to steer clear of analyzing "character."

But sometimes the story calls for it, sometimes editors insist upon it, and sometimes, lots of times, the temptation to get all writerly just carries you away.

Like I said, I don't know what was going through Maureen Dowd's head while she was writing as if she knew what was going through the Clintons' heads.

But I knew this girl back in high school...


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