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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Maureen Dowd on Barack Obama: He's the movie star in the White House

January 7, 2010 |  2:28 pm

Maureen Dowd, the sly, sharp-tongued columnist at the New York Times, knows what makes Barack Obama different from most of the men who run Hollywood -- he actually respects women.

In male-dominated Hollywood, most actresses still get stuck playing the romantic interest (wife, girlfriend or hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) in supporting parts while the most popular talk shows (i.e. Letterman, Leno and Conan O'Brien) have zero women on their comedy writing staffs. But in Obama's Washington, things are different, says Dowd, who's in town for an appearance tonight (Jan. 7) at 7:30 p.m. at the Sinai Temple, where Dowd will discuss manners and morals in politics and culture with Rabbi David Wolpe.

"Obama loves smart women," Dowd told me last night, right after she arrived in town. "[Secretary of Homeland Security] Janet Napolitano is a big favorite, but he also really admires [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Kathleen Sebelius and [Missouri Senator] Claire McCaskill. And he really loves Hillary! He singled her out at the Christmas Cabinet meeting for her hard work. For Hillary, Obama is the ideal man. He's the pretty one in the relationship and he loves brainy women, but he's not like Bill, who liked brainy women too, but was always looking over Hillary's shoulder to see what other women were in the room."

I've always been fascinated by the strong connections between Hollywood and Washington, which are both insider-oriented company towns where pragmatism trumps passion. In one town, you'll sacrifice many of your deeply held beliefs to get a bill passed (as the Democrats are doing right now to salvage the White House's embattled healthcare legislation) while in the other town, you'll throw any number of friends under the bus to get the inside track on a top job or get your movie made.

No one knows the similarities between the two towns better than Dowd, whose pop-culture sensibilities are almost as finely honed as her political instincts. She often uses a pop hook to describe various Washington luminaries. The columnist famously referred to Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, although she told me that when she bumped into George Lucas at Obama's inauguration, he corrected her, saying "Cheney isn't Darth Vader. Bush is Darth Vader. Cheney is the Emperor."

In past presidential campaigns, she would interview various aspirants, asking about their pop-culture bona fides. When she talked to Bush, he was immediately wary, telling her "my idea of culture is baseball." Bush did admit that he liked listening to George Jones and Van Morrison and volunteered that his favorite play was the musical "Cats," but he wasn't especially forthcoming about much else. "I think the Bushies thought the whole idea of a cultural interview was too effete," Dowd says. "Although he did say that his favorite movie was 'Cool Hand Luke,' which I thought was a pretty great choice."

Of course, Obama, a fanatically disciplined candidate, was too wary to do a cultural interview with Dowd at all. When Dowd interviewed Obama while he was traveling in Europe during the campaign, she decided to break the ice by giving him a DVD of the first season of "Mad Men." Obama's reaction was telling. "He gave me this very accusatory look and said, 'Oh, you just think I'll like it because they all smoke.' He was very skeptical.

"But a year later, when I saw him, he actually thanked me, saying he really liked it. I heard that Reggie [Love, the president's body man] sent away for Seasons 2 and 3. It turns out that Obama really liked Peggy Olson [the series character who struggles to rise from ad agency secretary to copywriter]. She reminded him of his grandmother, who had to work her way up in the same kind of man's world."

Dowd acknowledges that Washington is still very much a man's world. "In the course of talking about Katie Couric, my girlfriend Alexandra Stanley said that women only get the top jobs after the jobs don't mean anything anymore," she says with a laugh. "It's gotten a little better, but Washington is still very much of a boys club. I mean, Obama still goes off golfing with the guys for four hours at a time. I give him credit for appointing a lot of women to important posts, but I would never have predicted that the first black president would have a lot of the same man-cave tendencies as the guys who came before him."

(As if there any doubt that Washington boys will still be boys, check out my Top of the Ticket colleague Johanna Newman's delightful post about the romantic escapades of White House budget director Peter Orszag.)

So how is Obama really different from his presidential predecessors? And who are the real rock stars in Washington? Keep reading:

It's no secret that the Obama White House has a largely hands-off attitude toward Hollywood. The Lincoln Bedroom has been strictly off-limits for movie stars or prominent filmmakers. During the campaign, Obama went to great lengths to keep his distance from showbiz luminaries. "Obama has reversed the situation that we had with Bill Clinton, where Barbra Streisand and others were spending the night at the White House," Dowd says. "In this White House, it's Obama who's the leading man. In a way, he's restored the natural order of things, where the president should be the star, not his Hollywood friends."

Obama Dowd says that Obama reminds her of a beautiful actress who insists on being taken seriously for her brains, not her body. "Even though Obama eats like a starlet -- he's oh, so careful about what he eats -- he doesn't want to be seen as the dumb blond, as someone who gets by on his looks and charms," she says. "He went nuts when People ran a photo of him in a bathing suit, because it was so much like a movie star shot." She laughs. "Of course, you have to admit that he really looks good in a bathing suit."

So, if one of Dowd's Hollywood pals came to Washington, who would she introduce them to? Who has real charisma in Washington these days, outside of the president himself? Her first choice would be Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, who unlike his often solitary boss, is a social creature and especially chummy with the press. "You could easily picture Rahm doing a guest spot on 'Entourage,' because he, having a brother in Hollywood, really moves easily in both worlds."

Other candidates would be Jon Favreau, who at age 28 is the president's top speechwriter, and Love, the president's body man who was a wide receiver at Duke and is a regular in Obama's pickup basketball games. "They're the real rock stars right now in Washington," Dowd says. "Favreau is this gorgeous, brainy guy -- he goes out with Rashida Jones. And Reggie is incredible. You'd want to introduce a screenwriter to them. They're straight out of 'The West Wing.' I mean, Favreau is more handsome than Rob Lowe, and Reggie is a lot taller than Dule Hill."

Dowd chuckles. "I guess the bar wasn't that high, but this is a much hipper cultural White House than we've had in a long time."

Photos: Maureen Dowd. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images. President Barack Obama. Credit: Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press.