Maureen Dowd, premier columnist for the New York Times, is possessed of a rare professional gift: She can be mean (often really mean) and funny (often very funny) at the same time. What’s more, her potent powers of observation and sheer talent as a writer usually combine to mitigate her predictable Washington cynicism.

But with the election of George W. Bush, Maureen Dowd is behaving like a writer off her feed. She is not all that mean lately, and not all that funny, either. And she’s certainly not very incisive. What she is, it seems, is bothered—invested. And for a writer like Dowd, one whose every column is a precarious balance between humor and criticism, being bothered, being invested —caring— is like throwing a fistful of salt into a delicately seasoned sauce: It’s ruination.

I have no idea what kind of President George W. Bush will become; but he is already an interesting public presence because he has demonstrated that it’s possible for Maureen Dowd, the woman who had the Clintons’ number like no one else, to miss the point and miss it completely. One of the many fascinating consequences of the 2000 election is that, for the first time, Dowd’s surveys of the political landscape reflect not the faintest understanding of the view. In other words, the sharpest gal around just doesn’t get it. Over the years, Dowd’s columns have been great, and they’ve been lousy; she’s been right, and she’s been wrong. But never has she looked silly—until now. An examination of the reasons behind this turn of events yields revelations that are signified by, but far more important than, the thinking of the New York Times‘ most talked-about columnist.

In early January, Maureen Dowd wrote a piece complaining that George W. Bush, along with the men and women chosen to staff his administration, are boring. “Where is W.’s boomerness?” she demanded. “If Bill and Al tried too hard to be trendy,” she went on, “W. tries too hard not to be.” Which two words in those sentences suggest the source of Dowd’s current disorientation? The words are boomerness and trendy, and it is not an overstatement to say that Maureen Dowd is completely preoccupied with both, a fact which is revealed in everything she writes, whatever her subject.

Every so often, Dowd offers up a “girly” column, a piece filled with talk of high-priced face creams, upscale handbags, and cashmere sweater sets—”trendy” stuff, you might say. That she knows of such things—and writes of such things—suggests she cares about such things: things that are in, with it, happening. Maureen Dowd cares greatly—in a boomerish, I’m-actually-above-it-all sort of way—about what is hip. What she does not understand—and here is the source of her problem with the Bush team—is what is cool.

The difference between the outgoing and the incoming presidential administrations is all about the dissimilarity of hip and cool. In a nutshell: Hip entails effort; cool just is. Hip comes and goes; cool is eternal. Hip is about attitude; cool is about essence. Hip is, yes, trendy; cool doesn’t know from trends. (And since the first rule of cool is Don’t try to be hip, I’d say it speaks well for Bush’s cool potential that he has, as Dowd disapprovingly puts it, “a defiant anti-trendy streak.”) Cool is a mysterious combination of self-possession (which is not the same as self-confidence), self-knowledge (which is not the same as self-awareness), excellence (choosing and then meeting high standards), and humor —that is, the coloration of a unique personality.

By that measure, the coolest man in America at this moment is a balding, overweight, white guy with a problematic ticker and not a trendy bone in his body. I am speaking of Dick Cheney. By the rules of cool, which have been all but forgotten in the boomers’ slavish pursuit of hipness, Dick Cheney is the real deal. He’s The Man. (Some would say The Man is Colin Powell. But I’d pick Cheney over Powell because Powell is just a tad too aware of his own coolness.) And Cheney is the most positive thing to happen to this country in years—not necessarily for his politics but for his public comportment, his demeanor.

When Dick Cheney speaks, he says no more than he has to and no less than he needs to. When asked a question, he either answers it or explains why he won’t answer it. And like many of the men and women with whom Bush has surrounded himself, Cheney seems to view language as a storehouse (if not a treasure trove; after all, he’s in politics), a place from which words are to be borrowed, used carefully, then put back in their proper spot. He appears to operate from the simple premise that the purpose of language is to clarify meaning, not obliterate it, a premise which, in the context of our times, generates but one heartfelt response: Holy cow!

What Maureen Dowd finds depressing, I consider thrilling: the re-emergence of politicians who dare to be honestly boring. Call me easy, but it’s enough to put a spring in my step and a song in my heart. I even welcome George W.’s awkward, self-stifled verbal style—especially after eight years of a president who viewed language as his personal river, a president who was never happy until the Big Muddy had overflowed its banks, leaving every citizen within earshot squirming in clammy socks and squishy shoes.

We keep hearing that the Bush team is a “throwback.” What is not noted —apparently because it’s not comprehended —is how shocking it is these days to create a (nonironic) throwback to anything. In her Bush-generated doldrums, Maureen Dowd wrote, “There is nothing about the government President-elect W. is putting together that feels the least bit modern.” She went on to lament that the “men [Bush] will rely on to tell him what to do . . . reflect a bland, unadventurous adherence to tradition.”

I am a great fan of Maureen Dowd’s talent, but she is an example of what can happen when you spend too much time thinking that cashmere sweaters represent anything other than a really expensive way to keep warm. The “boomerness” she misses in George W. Bush occupies so large a place in her own persona that it blinds her to the nature of our current culture. The fact is, we live in times that are so relentlessly and obsessively “modern” that the most modern thing a president could possibly do is to put together a government that feels “not the least bit modern.” In a society that has proudly assaulted as “judgmental” everything from federal law to everyday etiquette, it is positively futuristic—it’s downright radical, for God’s sake—to be “bland and unadventurous.” And the government officials whom a yawning Dowd dismisses for their “adherence to tradition”? In the post-Clinton United States of America, those tradition-bound officials can properly be called revolutionaries.

My own hope is that the Bush traditionalists/revolutionaries have the courage to bore us silly. I am ready for people who go off and do their jobs while keeping their lips buttoned and their pants zipped. After two terms of the drama queen and the emperor (to be clear: Bill Clinton was the drama queen; Hillary, the emperor), I am ready for the very modern idea of being entertained by boredom.