NYT columnist: ‘Daddy issues’ define presidential candidates

Pulitzer Prize-winner Maureen Dowd on Nov. 7 shared insights into the men who campaign for the highest office in the land.


It’s hard to understand all of the influences that shape the way an American president views himself and his job, and as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd points out, President Barack Obama is no exception.

During a 2008 interview with Obama, as he asked for a moment alone away from aides to speak with Dowd about how “irritating” she was, “I realized it would be tough job being this president’s shrink.” Yet that hasn’t kept her from probing the inner thoughts of the 44th president of the United States, much like she has with other commanders-in-chief she’s covered as a journalist throughout her career.

Dowd spoke Wednesday night to a sold-out McCrary Theatre filled with students, faculty, community members and other friends of the university for the 2012 Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture at Elon University. Her presentation took place less than a day after Obama won re-election in a hotly contested campaign against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The 2012 elections, however, were just a small part of Dowd’s remarks. Instead of discussing voter turnout or campaign strategy, Dowd took her audience on a journey into the psyches of the men who seek the White House, all of whom over the past quarter century have been heavily influenced by their fathers.

Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich either had little or no involvement from their fathers in their formative years. Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, John McCain and George H.W. Bush all lived under the shadows of their famous parents and acted in different ways to either gain approval or forge their own path away from their dads.

That plays into the way these men have sought their jobs and it subtly influences the messages of a campaign.

“Presidential campaigns have an underlying paternal theme. Voters are looking for the good father who can protect the house from invaders,” Dowd said. On the surface, campaigns are a panorama of competing issues and contrasting styles, yet candidates try to show superiority in temperance, loyalty and courage. “Elections, like myths, are about seasons of renewal and how a culture expresses itself through its choice of leaders.”

Men like Clinton and Obama don’t rely on others and have used their ascendancy to the presidency as a way to mark triumph over their fathers’ absence. For men like George W. Bush and, more recently, Romney, turning away from the approaches and strategies their fathers espoused served as a way to avoid the mistakes they believe their parents made in either failing to achieve the presidency or losing their re-election bids.

In stinging commentary that spared neither political party, Dowd twice emphasized that despite the vast sums of money spent on the campaigns, nothing much has changed in Washington. “We had an election, and as the press has pointed out, the irony is that the most expensive campaign in American history has produced the status quo,” she said. “So there you go.”

Yet the recent elections will mark another milestone in the history of American politics, she said: “2012 will go down as the last gasp of the white male patriarchy.” The United States has reached a tipping point where the establishment will no longer be run exclusively by older, white, heterosexual, Protestant leaders.

That will impact the future of the Republican Party more so than the Democrats.

“You can’t treat women and Hispanics like second-class citizens with the Tea Party threatening transvaginal probes,” Dowd said. “As Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in exasperation, just before the election, when your party is losing 95 percent of African Americans and two thirds of Hispanics and almost everyone under 30, you should know your policies are ‘too hard-assed.’”

Dowd also talked briefly about her writing and changes to the media with the evolution of social media. In this era, she said, the job is that much harder when competition from anyone with Internet access and a social media platform can be the first to say what’s already on your mind.

“It puts even more psychological pressure on us to come up with something original, and that’s a hard thing,” Dowd said. “How can you think of something that some 20-years-old in San Diego hasn’t already said better, and faster?”

Then there’s the pressure of Googling a phrase or turn of the word to ensure it wasn’t written an hour ago, she quipped. How does she continue to write? “For me, it’s sheer terror all the time,” Dowd said. “I really only come up with original ideas, like two a year, that I’m really pleased with. Terror, kids!”

Paul Parsons, dean of the School of Communications, welcomed the audience to the program and gave background on the Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series, which brings to campus award winners “with something important to say.”

“We hunger to understand the national mood,” Parsons said, noting that Dowd’s visit comes on the heels of the election. “Whether or not you are sleep deprived tonight, our speaker tonight will be like a jolt to the system, that adrenaline rush, with her insightful commentary.”

Professor Brooke Barnett introduced Dowd herself and described the prolific writer as someone with the “uncanny ability” to connect her analyses with popular culture.

Dowd began her career in 1974 as an editorial assistant for The Washington Star, where she later became a sports columnist, metropolitan reporter and feature writer. When the Star closed in 1981, she went to Time magazine. She began her career at The New York Times as a metropolitan reporter in October 1983. In 1992, she was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting.

Dowd started writing opinion columns in 1995 after serving as a correspondent in the paper’s Washington bureau, and the following year she was named one of Glamour‘s “Women of the Year.” Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, Dowd has also written a column, “On Washington,” for The New York Times Magazine.

Born in Washington, D.C., Dowd received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Catholic University in 1973.

The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded annually since 1917, are the nation’s most prestigious awards in journalism and the liberal arts. The Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series brings recipients to campus each year with guests who have included David McCullough, Dave Barry, George Will, Anna Quindlen, Thomas Friedman and David Halberstam.

The series was made possible in 2001 with an endowed gift from James H. and Jane M. Baird of Burlington, N.C., who were the first presidents of the Elon Parents Council. Their son, Macon, is a 1987 Elon graduate and their son-in-law, Michael Hill, earned his Elon degree in 1989.