It’s easy to look at our media industrial complex and forget that its members were once young and hungry, that they had to hustle, grease sources and report stories within an inch of life. One can imagine these scrappers delirious just to see a byline buried on B4 or, God forbid, a sidebar. They sammy glicked their way through the newsroom. No one exited the womb a star.
Even so, these people seem to exist only in the ever-present. We see Juan Williams as Hannity’s graying foil—who sold out for the change in Roger Ailes’ pocket—but not the guy who, in 1987, churned out a gorgeous profile of a lawyer on Reagan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission named Clarence Thomas. We know Tucker Carlson as the proprietor of “a one-stop shop for Trayvon Trutherism,” not as the precocious striver who marshaled his significant gifts to chronicle a Liberian road trip and the abortion of Down syndrome babies. And Brit Hume—grave, phlegmatic Brit Hume… Can you see Brit as Jack Anderson’s “leg man“? You can’t, but he was.
Which brings us to The New York Times, whose stable of op-ed writers occupy, it is often said, the most valuable editorial real estate in America. As a bunch, they seem tactically devoid of the rough edges that made their salad days work such an energetic pleasure. Nicholas Kristof, long before he epitomized The White Savior Industrial Complex, would lead off a story on Japanese war atrocities with this kick to the gut: “He is a cheerful old farmer who jokes as he serves rice cakes made by his wife, and then he switches easily to explaining what it is like to cut open a 30-year-old man who is tied naked to a bed and dissect him alive, without anesthetic.” And Thomas Friedman, back when Matt Taibbi was still in junior high, could deliver a Beirut massacre tick-tock in which he observed buildings “bulldozed atop the bodies inside them. Some bodies were bulldozed into huge sandpiles, with arms and legs poking out in spots. In some areas the militiamen made neat piles of rubble and corrugated iron sheets to hide the corpses.” To borrow James Wood’s keen phrase, this work hummed with “the riot of life.”
That quality liberally imbues the early work of another veteran Timesman, Maureen Dowd. From her current in-house glamour shot, you would not necessarily guess that this was a reporter who, starting out at the Times, happily dove neck-deep in the muck. It was not long after Anna Quindlen picked her up from Time, where she’d worked for two years as a reporter—a few weeks shy of Christmas 1983, after less than a year at the paper—that Dowd, then 31, wrote a story that decades later has lost none of its oomph. “FOR VICTIMS OF AIDS, SUPPORT IN A LONELY SIEGE” is unrelentingly brutal. It didn’t win any awards, hasn’t been anthologized. And it almost, just maybe, cost Dowd her job.
At the time, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a social-services organization focused on people with AIDS, was founded in Larry Kramer’s living room. Now, with a paid staff of 12, a board of directors and hundreds of volunteers, GMHC was for afflicted gay men the only game in town. The day Dowd’s story hit the streets there had been 2,803 cases nationwide and 1,261 in New York alone. While the mayor, Ed Koch, was willing to serve on Dianne Feinstein’s AIDS Task Force of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and supported federal research, he wouldn’t authorize hospice care for the afflicted homeless; he demanded that GMHC pay $2 million to repurpose an abandoned high school as an “AIDS service center”; and, two years into the epidemic, the city wouldn’t allocate funds for education or services.
“Dowd’s clique,” that circle of friends all working at The Times—described by Ariel Levy in 2005 as “think Heathers, but nice“—hadn’t yet quite formed. Dowd’s pal, Michiko Kakutani, had been destroying authors in the Times‘ Books pages for a couple of years. But Alessandra Stanley, a sometime collaborator to whom she’d been close since their Time days, wouldn’t show up until 1990, and friend Frank Bruni arrived in 1995.
Six weeks before the AIDS story was published, Dowd had gotten her first byline as a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk. Fairly unremarkable, it’s about Columbia University’s just-completed Computer Science Building, on which $5.6 million was spent. It’s notable mostly for the prediction of Arno Penzias, a vice president of research for Bell Laboratories and a Nobel Laureate in physics. “By 1986, there will be more microprocessors being produced than McDonald’s hamburgers,” he told Dowd. “The Dick Tracy wrist radio is not that far away.”
Raised in Washington D.C., Dowd had been working there before she moved to New York for the New York Times gig. As a new reporter, she told me, “I thought maybe I should look kind of preppy, so I went and brought a duck sweater—you know, a sweater with a duck on it—from Talbot’s.” On her way to Columbia she missed her subway stop and ended up in Harlem. “And they were like, You do not belong here with that stupid duck sweater on. So then I got rid of the duck sweater.”
Back then, Dowd filed every couple of days: on a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, Marcus Garvey, Philip Roth (“ROTH’S REAL FATHER LIKES HIS BOOKS”), landmarks (“THE CHELSEA HOTEL, ‘KOOKY BUY NICE,’ TURNS 100″). Fourteen “silly features,” is how she puts it.
The profile of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, edited by James Gleick, was conceived as a story about the organization’s “buddies system,” volunteers tasked to comfort dying men. Dowd was not expected to spend much time on it, maybe two days. She ended up taking three weeks. “You could have done a two-day feature on it,” she allowed. But, she said, “When you cover a news story like that, at a moment like that, that turns out to be this horrible, you know, plague for one segment of society, it’s just a very gut-wrenching experience.”
The story begins with Mr. Lamb, a patient at New York University Medical Center. He would die three weeks before publication:
Cold in a warm hospital room, Stephen Lamb pulled his yellow blanket tighter around his emaciated body.
Dowd observes, “nurses and orderlies in hospitals who are so loath to enter the rooms of AIDS patients that they let the food trays pile up outside the door, leave trash baskets overflowing, or neglect patients lying in their own urine or excrement.”
She observes the yearnings of a man who, like Mr. Lamb, would die before the story got to print:
Allan Kendric, 46, a landscape architect from Queens, used to worry that he had little to say to his patient, a 30-year-old horticulturist from Brooklyn. “My life is so full,” Mr. Kendric said. “His whole experience is sitting in his bed in his lonely hospital room.”
On one recent visit, as the two sat silently, the young man asked Mr. Kendric softly: “Can you hold me for a minute? Nobody ever holds me anymore.”
Dowd’s story didn’t make A1, though it did jump off the front of the Metro section. I told her I was pleasantly surprised the story was allotted so much space, almost 3,000 words, given executive editor Abraham “Abe” Rosenthal’s well-known homophobia. As Charles Kaiser once said, “Everyone below Rosenthal spent all of their time trying to figure out what to do to cater to his prejudices. One of these widely perceived prejudices was Abe’s homophobia. So editors throughout the paper would keep stories concerning gays out of the paper.”
Dowd says she wasn’t aware of the homophobia. She doesn’t dispute Kaiser’s account, and others, but “I just had no knowledge of it at the time. I’ve read about it since and don’t doubt the accounts. I just didn’t experience it. Obviously, I wouldn’t have been in a position to.” To some extent, her view of the institutional homophobia was shaped by her friendship with Jeffrey Schmalz, a gay Times editor close to Arthur Sulzberger. He was “very powerful,” Dowd said, and a “really important person at the paper. So I didn’t see the homophobia because Jeff was just this person you thought would be running the Times someday. I think he would have ended up as the executive editor.” (Schmalz, who had AIDS, died in 1993.)
Dowd believed the paper “was good for gays. I didn’t realize until I read the accounts later that to some people it wasn’t.”
Gleick, who has nothing but kind words for Dowd (“fresh and exciting and a joy to work with”), gently disputed this. Like Kaiser, he was aware of “pressure” in the newsroom to “never to print anything that could be construed as approving of homosexuals or homosexuality.” The most pernicious result of this edict, says Gleick, was the Times’ “shameful slowness to notice AIDS. She and I both would have known that.”
According to Dowd, long after the story ran—she doesn’t remember exactly when—Gleick told her that her job had been in “some jeopardy.” Not, strangely enough, on account of the subject matter, but because it had taken so long to finish. The erstwhile editor disputed this, too. Said Gleick: “I don’t remember saying anything like that, and presumably someone’s exaggerating: either her memory, or me in youthful exuberance. Her job was never in jeopardy.”
Reporting, the actual shoe leather stuff, is a young person’s game. At some point in a successful writer’s career, the desire to live only in one’s own head, to not have to pick up phone, must be tempting. Dowd hasn’t succumbed to the temptation, yet. She calls plenty of people, but few of them, rather understandably, want to end up in her column. When we talked, Dowd was most animated, not about the Gay Men’s Health Crisis story, but another piece, that ran on B1 on November 25, 1983. She’d been sent to cover the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: “I was so excited I went to every balloon party the night before and the parade. And I had to interview, like, forty kids until I got the one cynical little New York girl who was, like, Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. But I did the work because I knew what I wanted.”
Of course, there were some precocious veterans on hand. When Superman wobbled maneuvering a corner on Central Park West, 7-year-old Jennifer Terban looked up in disdain.
“He should take flying lessons again,” she said. “I hate it when they tilt. Superman got hit in the face last year and Bullwinkle got caught in a tree.”
Jennifer gave only glancing notice to the grand finale of Santa Claus and his elves to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” “He’s not really Santa,”‘ she said. “He’s just a fat man with a beard.'”
And she got what she wanted, particularly in those early days at the Times—during which she may, or may not, have been on the cusp of canning—that Dowd calls “my favorite part of my career.” She continued writing like a madwoman, profiling Paul Newman, the new bohemia and New York’s late-night scene. The latter story, which appeared a year after the AIDS story, is magnificent: she managed to tell the story of what it was like to be in New York in the early 80s in a svelte 5,112 words.
Clubs are no longer merely places to drink and dance. You gotta have a gimmick, an idea behind the night. At Heartbreak, cigarette girls jive their way through couples jitterbugging to 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. At Visage, near the river on West 56th, mermaids and King Neptune descend on a swing from the ceiling into a pool; close to the dance floor, Hell’s Angels ice-skate on a miniature portable rink.
Area, the hottest of them all, is totally redecorated every five weeks, when the theme changes. The club was outfitted with pink flamingos and giant Tide boxes for the suburban period; with wrestlers and trampolines for sports; with Mao posters and a huge sculpture of a hand with scarlet fingernails for the color red.
But finally, in 1986, she decamped for Washington, for politics and a Pulitzer. The dying men of NYU Medical Center were another lifetime. But why, I wondered, did she walk away? Had she made an effort to stay on the AIDS beat?
She did not, but she wishes she had. “I don’t even know if I would have had the power to persuade them to do an AIDS beat at that early date,” she said. “You know, in years past I’ve often wished I had at least kept it as a part-time beat.” She was, said Dowd with a touch of regret, on “a different path to politics, but in my parallel, Gwyneth Paltrow Sliding Doors universe, I would have stuck with that beat.”