During the 2008 presidential campaign, New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Maureen Dowd thought she had hit the jackpot. Flying on candidate Barack Obama’s plane, she was about to interview the candidate, when he asked his adviser to leave them alone. “I thought, this is it,” she told a March 12 gathering in Warren. “I’m going to join Walter Lippman and Scotty Reston as a confidante to men seeking the presidency. I couldn’t wait to deliver my sage advice.” But, her expectations were quickly dashed when Obama’s first words to her were: “You are really irritating.”
Over 250 people came to Temple Har Shalom to hear Dowd deliver the annual Carol Cohen Davis Lectureship Fund talk, among them; Warren Township Deputy Mayor Vic Sordillo; township committee members Mick Marion and George Lazo; and Rabbi Eric Yoffie of Westfield, president of the Union for Reform Judaism
Established by Har Shalom member Andy Davis in memory of his wife, the fund brings in prominent women to speak at an event open to the entire community.
Davis noted in his introduction that his wife was a devoted reader of Dowd’s Sunday columns. “She grabbed ‘The Week in Review’ section before anyone else could have it,” he said. “And once she was done, she made sure I read the piece too so we could discuss it.”
Dowd, who has covered five American presidents and many presidential candidates, said her goal is to figure out what makes them tick. “I try to get into their heads,” she said. “It’s like being the president’s shrink. And I have come to a conclusion: Absolute power makes people absolutely nuts.”
Decisions regarding the Vietnam War were “directly affected by Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s personal demons,” she said, and President George W. Bush’s actions regarding the war in Iraq were motivated by his relationship with his father.
“It was an international strategy reduced to family psycho-drama,” Dowd said. “‘W’ had always been in his father’s shadow and wanted to show he could go it alone.” He was so determined, Dowd said, that although Bush I was the only U.S. president to lead a war in Iraq, the son never consulted the father on strategy.
Among today’s presidential wannabes, for Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, Dowd said, “the id has taken hold. Although he tries to present himself as a man of the people, he compulsively drops in references to his wife’s two Cadillacs and his friends who own NASCAR teams.”
And why would President Bill Clinton risk his reputation, family, and the presidency by having an affair with an intern? “There was something inside him that wanted to make trouble for himself,” Dowd said. “If those around him would forgive him, then he could prove to himself that he was loved.”
According to Dowd, Obama’s psychology is two-sided. “On domestic issues, he displays passivity and a desire to please his opponents. But when it comes to foreign affairs he shows firm leadership, sending drones after our enemies and taking out Osama Bin Laden.”
It’s ironic, she said, that the Republican presidential candidates portray Obama as “a weak sister on foreign policy. But considering the state of the Republican Party, I’m not surprised.”
The increasing shift to the right of the party base, she said, has forced the GOP candidates to offer sometimes extreme proof of their conservative credentials. “Rick Perry described evolution as ‘that theory that’s out there,’ and Michele Bachmann said it ‘has never been proved, one way or the other.’”
Republican women are alarmed at the party’s stance on contraception, and on sex itself. “One political expert told me, ‘Republicans being against sex is not good for getting votes. Sex is popular.’”
Dowd said even her brothers, whom she described as “uber-Catholic,” believe that Rick Santorum’s rhetoric on contraception goes too far and is not realistic. “I know my parents — the most devout Catholics I ever met — used birth control,” she said.
After her talk, Dowd took questions from the audience. When she was asked her opinion of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, she said that some reporters think he is too blunt, but “after reporting on Bob Dole, John Kerry — and I think Mitt Romney is headed this way — who were a little dull, I would much prefer covering Christie.”
In response to a question about whether Obama has “distanced himself from Israel,” Dowd said he clearly does not have as much Jewish support as President Bush had, but she believes that that is because Obama “subscribes to my colleague Tom Friedman’s theory that in order to be perceived as an ‘honest broker’ in the peace process, it’s important not to love Israel too much.’”
Resa Drasin, the congregation’s immediate past president, told NJJN that Dowd’s appearance raised “a tremendous amount of interest in the community at large, especially since this is an election year.”