Arts/Literature

Molly Ivins is cheering alongside Barack’s grandmother

New month, new president, new era, new Scrogue on the banner. If only Molly Ivins could have lived another 22 months. The proudly liberal Texas commentator, who died of cancer on Jan. 31, 2007 at 62, would have added so much irreverent wit to the punditsphere during an election season that took fodder to a whole new level — I can’t help but think of the fun she would have had with a moose-hunting, former beauty queen governor. She would also have had the rather twisted pleasure of seeing Shrub shrivel up in an ignominious end to one of the most debased presidencies of all time.

Ivins – populist wisecracker, incorrigible riler of conservatives, feisty foe of George Dubya Bush – was an ardent defender of democracy. And surely with the historic election of an African-American president outside the conventional boxes, she would have concurred that we were witnessing the democracy she cherished struggling back onto its wounded feet. For if Obama’s victory is anything, it is an achievement that happened from the bottom up, from grassroots volunteerism and $25 donations (though Ivins would have castigated him for flip-flopping on public financing), from the willingness of a populace to embrace words that they – like Ivins — refused to see as hollow, like hope, and change.

But it helped that Obama had a little extra moxie to him, too: shortly before she died, when Ivins was asked in December 2006 whether Obama should run for president, she said, “Yes, he should run. He’s the only Democrat with any ‘Elvis’ to him.”

Obama’s inner Elvis may have been muted at times beneath his steady, cool campaign exterior, but Ivins recognized leadership mojo when she saw it. And it was a new kind of leadership, the kind Barack Obama embodied to the American public as it went to vote Tuesday, that Ivins yearned for along with the rest of the electorate. In a January 2006 column she opposed a Hillary Clinton candidacy as more of the same, tired Washington, saying, “Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone.”

What the country needed was someone shaped in a different mold, even a mold-breaker. How prescient her words seem now, reflecting on the death of Eugene McCarthy:

“The recent death of Gene McCarthy reminded me of a lesson I spent a long, long time unlearning, so now I have to re-learn it. It’s about political courage and heroes, and when a country is desperate for leadership. There are times when regular politics will not do, and this is one of those times. There are times a country is so tired of bull that only the truth can provide relief. If no one in conventional-wisdom politics has the courage to speak up and say what needs to be said, then you go out and find some obscure junior senator from Minnesota with the guts to do it.”

McCarthy’s bid for the presidency wasn’t successful, but the junior senator’s from Illinois was. And in that, Ms. Ivins would have almost certainly seen further encouragement for her call to democratic renewal.

Her liberal populism and glee in flouting propriety developed in the most unlikely of circumstances.  A Texan through and through, Mary Tyler Ivins was born and raised in privilege in the affluent Houston neighborhood of River Oaks, daughter of a powerful Republican oil man.  At a friend’s house she discovered The Texas Observer, a muckraking periodical that fueled angry arguments with her father about civil rights and the Vietnam War. She carried her independent thinking into journalism, which she pursued with a master’s degree at Columbia University, following studies at Smith College and the Institute of Political Science in Paris.

In 1970, Ivins leapt at an offer to become co-editor of The Texas Observer after starting out at the Houston Chronicle and the Minneapolis Tribune. Here, she honed the irreverence for which she became (in)famous, finding in the Texas legislature endless political hilarity to lampoon. Her renegade style didn’t fit in so well at the New York Times, which wooed her away in 1976: she often showed up to the newsroom barefoot, in blue jeans, accompanied by her dog named Shit. The Times obituary for Ivins said she complained the paper’s traditional editors “drained the life from her prose. ‘Naturally, I was miserable, at five times my previous salary,’ she later wrote. ‘The New York Times is a great newspaper: it is also No Fun.’”

Ivins returned to Texas in 1982 when the Dallas Times Herald offered her a column in which she could write whatever she damn well pleased. She did, to the consternation of politicians, industry executives, advertisers, and plenty of conservative Texas readers. Ten years later her column was nationally syndicated, leaving more than Texans to ask, “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” — the title of her first book.

Her career grew as big as her personality, with more books, magazine articles in all the big-league intellectual periodicals, TV appearances, and speaking tours. I laughed till I cried every time I heard Molly address the annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she was a beloved raconteur. In 2005 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

It’s a shame Ivins hasn’t been here to opine on the campaigns, to share in the magnitude of what American voters did last Tuesday, and to skewer what’s left of the Bush Administration as it skulks out, leaving a swath of financial and environmental wreckage on its way.  But the model she left behind exemplifies the potency of being both scholar and rogue.  While her wit and style were uniquely her own, she grounded her opinions with the solid reporting of an old-school journalist. She was never a blowhard, shouting obnoxiously about things she didn’t understand. Her knowledge of politics and culture was both broad and deep. Yet she wasn’t afraid to push and challenge, to irritate and enervate, to speak truth to power wrapped in humor that could dupe and delight even the targets of her invectives (she would have relished Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin).

Molly, iconic Scrogue, we miss you. May our humble efforts here at S&R pay a smidge of earnest homage to the example you have set. And may our new president help democracy bloom, now that we’re finally getting a chance to whack back the bushes. I hope that somehow you can see it.

4 replies »

  1. It is a great shame that she has gone. There was no one like her for seeing past the spin and deflection of any politician right to the bones of the matter. She would be as hard on Obama as she had been on Shrub, we should follow her example.

  2. Sad to say, most of us failed to invoke her memory during the electoral cycle. Thanks, Wendy, for eloquently righting that wrong.