During a recent television appearance, New York Times pundette Maureen Dowd said something that should have effectively ended her career. In an on-air discussion with HBO’s Bill Maher, Dowd said that those who oppose the expansion of funding for stem-cell research come from “what Lee Atwater used to call the extra-chromosome conservatives.”
If anyone fails to take in the full meaning of Dowd’s statement, she was referring to the condition that causes Down Syndrome. In other words, if you oppose stem-cell research, you must be as stupid, unsophisticated, and laughable as someone who suffers from Down Syndrome. Wow, that’s funny stuff right there.
Here’s the exchange:
Dowd: …She’s [Teresa Heinz Kerry] been sort of eclipsed this week by Laura Bush, I think.
Maher: Yeah, who, ah, said she came out against the stem cell research. Why is she an expert on something so technical?
Dowd: Because Karl Rove thinks that if the Bush White House gets four million more evangelical votes than they did last time it ensures Bush’s re-election, which means he’s not his dad. And so they’ve dragged poor Laura Bush out to go for this, what Lee Atwater used to call the extra-chromosome conservatives.
This is what is known as stepping in it. It was much worse than Trent Lott appearing to be nostalgic for the good old days of Strom Thurmond’s youth. This is Jimmy the Greek explaining black athletic superiority by getting into the details of slaveholders’ strategies for better breeding of field hands.
In fact, Dowd’s characterization of pro-lifers as “extra-chromosome conservatives” is worse than either of the preceding examples. She played birth defects for laughs to score a few cheap political points.
Was it a one-time slip? Was this the first time Dowd invoked Down Syndrome to explain the failings of conservatives? No. On at least two occasions in her regular NYT column, Dowd used the same one-liner. She has alternately attributed it to Lee Atwater and Bush the Elder. My own guess from a Lexis-Nexis search is that the term arises from what someone told Kitty Kelley when she was writing her book on Nancy Reagan. Dowd finds the slur so amusing that she keeps recycling it.
Dowd’s thoughtless reference to “extra-chromosome conservatives” as a way of describing pro-lifers carries a further heartless edge. Down Syndrome children are increasingly the target of abortion by parents who refuse to countenance the addition of such a child to their families. Sometimes, pro-lifers are the only advocates these vulnerable children have.
This time around, Dowd tied the slur to the four million evangelical voters Karl Rove believes stayed home in 2000. In effect, she slandered an entire religious community in the United States. This type of mindless repetition of an obviously untrue stereotype is a sign of professional laxity and ill will. We all know how many academics, physicians, professionals, and other hard-working, decent people exist in the evangelical world to put the lie to her idiotic parroting of the old saw first rolled out by the Washington Post so long ago (poor and easy to command, remember?). A similar characterization of any other religious group in America would meet with severe censure, and rightly so.
POSTSCRIPT: Maureen Dowd may have spoken more correctly than she knew when she identified pro-lifers as “extra-chromosome conservatives.” Jerome Lejeune discovered the extra chromosome that causes Down Syndrome and devoted his career to treating the children who suffer from it. He also happens to have been a powerful advocate for the unborn. Maybe she could call him an “extra-chromosome conservative” as well.