Dorothy Rabinowitz, the sexy, five-foot-tall Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member, hosted a dinner party recently at a downtown restaurant and, for a good 20 minutes, she smiled as her guests denounced Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Finally, she let it rip.
“I revere John Ashcroft,” she said.
There was a lengthy silence. Things went downhill after that.
“This comment caused such dementia,” said Ms. Rabinowitz a few days later at her newspaper’s Liberty Street offices, 200 yards from Ground Zero. ” What ? Somebody they knew and respected could say this? Of course I don’t revere John Ashcroft-but as far as I was concerned that night, I revered John Ashcroft.”
The sixtysomething Ms. Rabinowitz, who was wearing a black leather bomber jacket and red snakeskin pants, continued on about the “radical crazies” and “fascist left” who are at the core of her fury these days.
In particular, she objected to Hollywoodites and other cultural elites who like to compare George W. Bush’s United States to Germany in the 1930′s.
“This is it, in a nutshell,” she said. “This is the thing, the ballistic missile-this is what will earn my eternal loathing, and there is no going back. You know, it’s always two minutes to midnight for American democracy in the minds of these people. It is a fact that what John Ashcroft has done is pull together what was already on the books. He has made it more difficult for the accused terrorists to defend themselves-but this is not nothing; we are living in a war against terror. And to watch the revered Walter Cronkite burbling on, comparing Ashcroft to Torquemada and without a blink-and he’s not joking. So these are the fever swamps in which we now are in.”
Above Ms. Rabinowitz’s desk were photographs of her with Henry Kissinger, Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham and the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley. Although she’s a registered Democrat, the last one she voted for was Lyndon Johnson.
She said Howard Dean had been the Democrats’ best candidate.
“The more integrated personality of them all,” she said. “It’s his speech: He connects one thought to another, he is absolutely jargon-free, he doesn’t talk like the others-he was a male person in a really serious way. There’s a kind of a sexy core to him, even in his little, short-armed way.
“I thought everything he said was absurd,” she added, “but not the kind of absurdity that’s deep and corrosive.”
How about the nominee-presumptive, John Kerry? The phrases “grinding condescension and babble,” “sheer mindless demagoguery” and “bombastic lordly presence” escaped her lips.
She moved on to President Bush, whom she voted for “very reluctantly” in 2000.
“It wasn’t very long until after Bush was sworn in that I saw what he was,” she said. “He was solid and earnest. He knows what is important. He has an inner confidence that is rare. He’s no Franklin Roosevelt, but he is who he is. He is a tough guy, and I greatly admire him.”
She also adores Donald Rumsfeld and hates It’s a Wonderful Life .
Dorothy Rabinowitz is not purely a darling of the right, however. “Dorothy is my favorite kind of right-winger,” said 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt. “She’s right without being righteous.”
“She’s a lively, funny, incisive person, which is obviously a quality of her writing as well,” said New York Times columnist Frank Rich. “Our lunches are not debating sessions; we probably agree more often than we don’t.”
In 2001, Ms. Rabinowitz won the Pulitzer Prize in commentary for articles about the 2000 Presidential election and bogus child sex-abuse cases, which last year became a book, No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times .
“What she did with the abuse cases was the sort of thing that all of us originally got into this business to do,” said The Journal ‘s editorial-page editor, Paul Gigot. “She got people out of jail . That’s worth a lot more than a Pulitzer Prize.”
Ms. Rabinowitz has never been married and said she’s never been lonely. In 1971, she moved into the one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment she shares with a Tibetan terrier named Simon. “I would say he’s the best-looking male that has ever entered my life,” she said.
The building’s residents hardly embrace her. “People don’t even say hello,” she said, adding that she’s overheard herself being referred to as “the person who doesn’t like Maureen Dowd.” Others have tried to hook her into elevator conversation by referring to “that bastard Bush.”
There are exceptions. Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York and Observer columnist, lives next-door.
“We talk about everything from hairdos and maquillage right through to politics-where, of course, Dorothy really shines,” Mr. Doonan said. “I’m fairly apolitical, but after 10 minutes with Dorothy on the street, you just wonder why everyone isn’t a raging archconservative, because she’s wildly charismatic-and that’s something that left-wing people haven’t figured out yet.”
Recently, Mr. Doonan said, there was an antiwar march down their street; he watched from his balcony as students chanted things like “Bush is a scumbag!”
“And then, all of a sudden, I saw Dorothy cleaving her way through them, and she had an American flag tied around her dog’s neck,” he said. “She was spewing well-deserved invective at these idiotic students.
“And the fact that she’s such a good-looking broad doesn’t hurt,” he continued. “She’s extremely good-looking. I would say she’s an Ava Gardner–Liz Taylor 50′s brunette. She’s always hot-looking. If she went to Washington, I’m sure they would think she’s a hooker.”
Dorothy Rabinowitz grew up “very poor” in a two-family house in Queens. Her father, a grocer whose family had been killed by the Nazis, was often agitated. “He would go to refugee agencies every day after the war,” she said. “I would catch him crying.”
Her mother, she said, had a “rapier, assaultive” wit; she would mutter “bastards” and “thugs” under her breath, to which her husband would reply, “Shhhhh!”
Ms. Rabinowitz said she remembered when Harry Truman won the 1948 election. “But the greatest joy that I can remember was when the Giants won the pennant,” she said.
She liked to be alone and read comic books. In fourth grade, she hit a boy in the head with an apple and once impressed classmates by picking up a snake. “You’re daring and everyone else is shrinking,” she said.
At Forest Hills High School, she was voted class cynic. At Queens College, she skipped class, and her grades were so bad that she was forced to see a counselor. During grad school at New York University, she taught freshman composition, but it never occurred to her to be a writer.
“I can’t understand to this day why, since I love literature,” she said. “I think the horizons are much shrunken when you’re young.”
She liked boys: “I used to pace the front porch when I was in love, late at night-sweet memories, Tony Bennett singing Because of You .”
Much later, there would be a few of what she termed “illicit romances.”
“I don’t think I could ever run for President myself,” she said, by way of explanation. “I expect to write memoirs one day. But if the AIDS epidemic were around then, we would all be dead.”
Candidate John F. Kennedy caught her eye one afternoon in Washington Square Park. “I have never seen anybody look quite …. He glowed red, a golden-red presence,” she said. “It was quite amazing to see him. The assassination remains a sort of encapsulated horror.”
Ms. Rabinowitz made a rightward turn after what she termed “fascist bands of antiwar protesters” and “mindless, politicized thugs” radicalized the debate in the wake of the 60′s: student uprisings, the 11th Street townhouse bombing, hippies walking around barefoot.
“Every day it was something else,” she said. “It was the annihilation of all standards of reason and discourse.”
But there was fun to be had. “God, there were so many parties,” she said.
“She was an elegant bohemian,” said longtime friend Ruth King. “A very fine list of accomplished gentlemen were very interested in her. Always. They wanted to create an ongoing situation, and I think with Dorothy there was a cutoff at some point. She had chosen a life alone.”
In 1970, after working at an old folks’ home, Ms. Rabinowitz sent an unsolicited article about the experience to the neoconservative journal Commentary . It was published. Soon editor Norman Podhoretz was telling people, “She writes one sentence and the whole world comes!”
In the same spirit as “Radical Chic,” Tom Wolfe’s take-down in New York magazine of Leonard Bernstein’s Park Avenue party for the Black Panthers, she targeted the New Left.
“That article was a turning point,” Ms. Rabinowitz said. “Tom Wolfe got to them in the best possible way. He got to them and he made people laugh at them. The laughter kills-as Midge [Decter] said to me, ‘He’s destroyed them.’ And, of course, that’s what he did.”
In 1976, Ms. Rabinowitz received a grant to write about Holocaust survivors, which became a book, New Lives , which Saul Bellow listed as one of three books that meant the most to him that year. Over the next decade, she wrote book reviews for The New York Times , a column for the New York Post and investigative pieces for New York magazine. “I used to pride myself as the person who could get the interview that no one else could get,” she said. “I never took no for an answer. Never.”
But freelance life was rough: “You’re getting somewhere, you have no money, and being attractive doesn’t do you any good.”
In the mid-80′s, she took an interest in the growing list of child sex-abuse cases, many of which centered around day-care workers. Anonymous phone calls were leading to quick investigations. Civil-rights groups took little interest in the accused; the dominant point of view was expressed by Times Op-Ed columnist Anna Quindlen: “Listen to the children.”
Ms. Rabinowitz took up the cause of Margaret Kelly Michaels, who was convicted of 115 counts of sexually abusing 20 nursery-school children in 1988 and sentenced to 47 years. Ms. Rabinowitz spent two years trying to get an article published. The New Yorker passed, as did New York magazine and Vanity Fair , where editor Tina Brown gave her $10,000 for research, then backed away. “It was very honest,” said Ms. Rabinowitz. “She said, ‘I can’t do it-I’ve got a 4-year-old son.’ That was a very common response.”
She rewrote her piece five times. “It was very exhausting. I don’t know what kept me at it, but once you’re in it, you’re in it,” she said. “Anger is one of the greatest boons to a writer.”
She tried to persuade her friend Ismail Merchant, the producer, to make a movie about the case. “Oh, Dorothy, we’re doing Howards End now,” he told her.
Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham came to the rescue.
“She called me up, and it sounded interesting to me,” Mr. Lapham said. “It came out and reopened the case and got Kelly Michaels out of jail. That’s one of the best things that Harper’s Magazine has ever done.”
Soon after, Mr. Bartley hired her at The Wall Street Journal and gave her space to continue the crusade. One case involved the Amirault family, who ran a day-care center in Massachusetts. In court, children told of being given magic juice drinks, being tied to trees, and being terrorized by clowns and robots. Three family members had been sent to jail in 1987. In 1995, six months after Ms. Rabinowitz began writing about them, Violet Amirault and her daughter Cheryl were released.
What’s it like getting people out of jail?
“It’s very nice,” she said. “But it’s the thing that other journalists value very much, because it appears to be something that’s important-get somebody out, change the world. All right, it is a change in the world; it stopped the agony of knowing that someone you know beyond a shadow of a doubt is innocent … you know your life will never be the same again unless you move heaven and earth to get them out. And you’re in a position to do it.
“I don’t see myself at heart as a rescuer,” she continued. “I am not a social worker …. I do not like the idea of being viewed as saintly.”
In 1996, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for commentary “for her columns effectively challenging key cases of alleged child abuse.” She won it in 2001, for her “articles on American society and culture,” including five articles about sexual abuse cases.
She wasn’t expecting to win. Mr. Bartley tricked her into coming into work that day. There was a big party. Mr. Bartley told his star writer that the best was yet to come. Two years later, he died at 66. The funeral began with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“We just dissolved, all of us,” she said. “The coffin goes by, and that was just an agony. Things pass, but those were bad days. The thought of this brilliant presence lying in the ground was too much. He was the sanest, most eccentrically wonderful creature, and everyone knew that about him. But everything went on.”
During The Journal ‘s editorial-board meetings, said board member Susan Lee, Ms. Rabinowitz has two modes.
“One is Delphic in utterance, which is sometimes confusing,” Ms. Lee said. “Something will come out, and everybody will go, ‘ Ahhh … have to think about that later.’ And the other mode is, she’s very funny. I find Dorothy extremely seductive. She’s got that manner of somebody who’s used to being thought of as seductive. She is definitely an oddball, but she is beloved.”
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Rabinowitz was sitting in front of a giant mirror at a salon on Madison Avenue, discussing lefty Hollywood as the salon’s owner, Richard Stein, fussed over her black hair.
“They live in an alternate universe, an alternate revolting universe,” she said, citing actress Janeane Garofalo and others that she termed “elitist scum,” including director Robert Altman, Alec Baldwin, Johnny Depp and Michael Moore.
“He is the most loathsome public specimen of Hollywood I have seen,” she said. “He sees himself as a martyr. This moist martyrdom: ‘They’re after me!’”
Mr. Stein, the salon owner and an ardent liberal, spoke up.
“I think Kerry’s supposed to bring a new Camelot,” he said. “Don’t you think he’s going to resurrect J.F.K.-the real J.F.K. that we all want ?”
“No. Richard, are you cutting my hair too short?”
Mr. Stein compared America in 2004 to the 1930′s: “The fact that we’re in dumbed-down America, and Germany was dumbing down and burning books …. ” he said.
“Shut up!” Ms. Rabinowitz said. “I’m getting annoyed now.”
“All of you media,” Mr. Stein continued, “NPR included-you’re owned by Murdoch, all of you.”
“This is ludicrous. He has no idea what he’s talking about. Shut up, Richard!”
“She’s such a troublemaker,” Mr. Stein said, cutting away. “She’s the best troublemaker I know. I once cut Abbie Hoffman’s hair, before he came out.”
“Richard, don’t fool around with it-leave it alone!”
“We all believe that you Republicans are finished now, slowly unraveled, and it’s almost over,” he said. “The consensus is that the whole media is tied into Bush money.”
“Don’t use your fingers-use the comb and the roller!” she barked. “See, you’re not in control of your instincts. I’m serious-I’ll call you in the middle of the night if I find this hair falling down.”
Soon Mr. Stein was holding forth on Margaret Thatcher.
“That’s very good, Richard,” Ms. Rabinowitz said. “My dog Simon has a greater grasp of reality than you …. Richard, I want you to tease that hair . I am never coming here again, and I’m never bringing anyone here again.”
“My God, I like it when you look sexy and hot like this,” he said.
Ms. Rabinowitz paid the $385.27 bill, then asked the woman behind the counter if she should become a blonde. But before the woman could speak, Dorothy Rabinowitz answered her own question: “Every man in my life has always said, ‘ Nooo , brunettes are the thing.’”