Tidewater Review - March 2010


Molly Ivins - Oh, My!
Anne Stinson


Molly Ivins: A Rebel’s Life by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith. Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. 335 pp. $26.95.
Critic H. W. Brands says it all in his comment about the redoubtable Molly Ivins. “Everybody loved Molly Ivins, except those who hated her,” he wrote. Count this critic as one of the former. Who could not love a woman so daring that in 1993 she instigated a one-of-a-kind counter-protest march when the KKK announced it was busing in from Waco to Austin, the Texas state capital. When 50 Klansmen arrived, Ivins had several hundred friends gathered to meet them. On cue, Ivins and the others silently lowered their pants and mooned the KKK members.
Her talent for humor and ridicule was sharp, quick and accurate as Annie Oakley’s gun. She took prompt aim and pulverized her targets. She specialized in revealing the idiocy and stupidity of “the ledge,” her word for the Texas state legislature. When the pols were in session, she prowled the hallways, sat in on debates and drank beer into the night with fellow reporters and the buffoons she covered. Nobody had more fun than Ivins, whose laughter was always the biggest noise in any room she entered.
Her fame, or notoriety, depending on whose ox was being gored, was definitely not what her parents had in store for her future. Her mother and her mother’s mother had both graduated from Smith College. That’s where Molly matriculated as a matter of course, and her mother’s goal was for Molly to grow up to be a lady, a wife and a mother.
It didn’t turn out that way. Molly was very tall, red-haired and curvy and could have been a beauty, but made no effort to embellish her appearance. Her face on the book jacket captures her wide-set eyes and natural curls, but her smile dominates the face. It could light up all of Texas. As she wrote in a previous book, “I wanted to grow up to be a famous ‘arthur,’” a characteristic example of her offbeat humor.
The relationship with her strong-willed father was a different matter. He was stern, critical and their conversations were fractious. From an early age, Molly felt there was a chasm between their interests. His world was big “bidness,” oil, money, power and privilege. They had fierce disagreements on civil rights and the Vietnam War.
Perhaps in retaliation to his rigid stances, Molly sided with the little man. She was intimidated by her father, who was “constantly evaluating her, ‘Was she any good at this, is she any good at that?’” a never-ending lack of approval, a friend from childhood said.
Alcohol played a sinister role in her parents’ lives, as it did in Molly’s. From her college years to her death in 2007, it was her nemesis. She fought it and had sober spells intermittently, but she had a reputation for drinking the biggest sots under the table, both the politicians and writers with whom she caroused.
She called a friend from childhood, Hank Holland, the love of her life. They became engaged shortly after their college years, but he was killed in a motorcycle accident before the wedding took place.
She was a civil libertarian from the beginning of her career. A stalwart member of the ACLU, she gave speeches and contributed to its work tirelessly, even when she was weakened by the three bouts with breast cancer that took her life.
At a speech at Columbia University, she declared, “It is the duty, naturally, of all good civil libertarians to stand up for the right of those blue-belly nincompoops to spew whatever vicious drivel they want to, and that is a stand that is about as popular as a whore trying to get into the SMU School of Theology.”
Above all, she was a rabid Texan, but not without witty scorn. She often referred to George W. Bush as “Shrub,” compared to his former president father, of whom she wrote, “Calling George H. W. Bush shallow is like calling a dwarf short.” She also excoriated the Reagans, writing, “Ronald Reagan is so dumb that if you put his brains in a bee it would fly backwards ... His mind is mired somewhere in the dawn of social Darwinism and she’s a brittle, shallow woman obsessed with appearances, but it was that kind of decade, wasn’t it?”
Nothing stopped her until she made it to her career goal, a job at the great gray eminence, the New York Times. The newspaper’s staid voice was an incredible misfit for Molly’s irreverence. She was hired precisely to counteract criticism that the news and commentary was too dull, and her flippance was the perfect lightener. In practice, however, copy editors were timid and deleted any hint of color in her assignments. She was directed to write bland stories out of her sphere of journalism.
That wasn’t Molly’s cup of tea. The final straw was her trip to Mexico to report on a small town’s celebration of chickens. The populace cut the heads off chickens, dressed them, cooked and ate them in a big feast. Molly’s final sentence in her story referred to the event as “a Gang Pluck.” It so enraged editor Abe Rosenthal that she was banished to the Denver, Colorado, bureau.
Still on its generous pay scale, she hesitated about leaving the Times, and was called back to New York to write the news from City Hall. Restricted from the meatier stories, she was confined to budget hearings, zoning battles and the city planning commission. Still, her humorous sentences were gutted. An offer from the Dallas Morning Herald took her back to Texas.
She almost immediately started mocking Dallas. When the Republican Congressman Jim Collins said the way to solve the energy crisis could be avoided “if we didn’t use all that gas on school using,” Molly wrote that if Collins’s “IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” She was back in her old form.
Her early stomping ground was a perfect fit, the tiny (circulation 12,000) Texas Observer. It was noted for its flippance and sassiness about Texas shibboleths, the boasting arrogance that the Lone Star State exhibited toward the rest of the country. She honed her skills there and gained attention in journalism circles as a deliciously wicked writer. Her mentors at that paper encouraged her skill at deflating pomposity, and at her last stint at the Fort Worth Star Telegram her fame went national. Her columns were syndicated and appeared all over the country to a mixture of applause and vitriol.
She was particularly cutting on her coverage of the new president, George W. Bush, who had beaten her friend, Ann Richards in her bid for re-election to the governor’s seat. She never mentioned in her columns all the dirt she knew about the new man in the State House – his out-of-control drinking, his public boorishness, his inept foray into the oil bidness or sports club ownership. Instead, she mocked his swagger, detested his grandstanding over the war in Iraq and his reliance on hawks Rumsfeld and Cheney.
The right wing of the Republican party considered her a witch. Radicals and left-wing Democrats thought she was close to the Second Coming.
All in all, she left a fierce legacy of opposition to purloined power, a gift of laughter for her supporters and a dose of bile for her enemies.