Just As I Thought

Goodbye, Molly

This is a sad day, contemplating the loss of someone who made us laugh and think at the same time. I will miss you, Molly.

Molly Ivins, queen of liberal commentary, dies

Austin resident battled breast cancer.

By W. Gardner Selby
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Molly Ivins, the acerbic Texas writer who shed her family’s conservative roots to become one of the nation’s best-known, treasured (sometimes vilified) liberal commentators, died [Wednesday] after battling cancer. She was 62.

Writing on Salon.com in 1990, critic David Rubien compared Ivins to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Will Rogers, H.L. Mencken and Red Smith, writers (coincidentally men) who used satire to deflate pomp and prick conventional wisdom.

In her home state of Texas, Ivins was celebrated as a storyteller, whether it was in her recollection of late nights jawing with Democratic politicians or in her moving account in a post-Vietnam column of an unnamed boyfriend who died in that conflict.

The humor that laced her work did not deter her from forceful statements of opinion. In the last column posted online by her syndicate, dated Jan. 11, Ivins urged readers to act against President Bush’s plans to send more troops to Baghdad.

“We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders,” Ivins wrote, employing one of the president’s self-descriptions. “And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush’s proposed surge. . . . We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘Stop it, now!’ “

Friends and family who assisted Ivins through her illnesses included her assistant, Betsy Moon, who coaxed her last column out of her, according to Lou Dubose, a writer who co-authored two books with Ivins and was collaborating on a third.

“Molly was really well-served for a long time by this small group of men and women,” Dubose said.

There were sometimes disagreements among them: for instance, whether Ivins should attend and speak at a recent fundraiser for The Texas Observer (she did). But the tugging was understandable as friends balanced Ivins’ desire to remain active against their protectiveness.

Ivins came home to hospice care Monday. Three days earlier, she turned to Dubose from her hospital bed and said: “So how was your trip to New Jersey?” a reference to a research trip he’d completed for a book on the Bush administration and the Bill of Rights.

“A romantic journalist,” Dubose said. “She romanticized our profession.”

Never married, Ivins lived with pets including a black standard poodle in South Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood, north of St. Edward’s University.

Mary Tyler Ivins was born in Monterey, Calif., in August 1944, the middle of three children of Jim and Margot Milne Ivins. Jim Ivins served as a Navy officer in the Pacific in World War II before moving his family to the affluent River Oaks section of Houston, where he worked as a corporate attorney and executive for Tenneco Corp.

Jim Ivins, imbuing in Molly a love of the outdoors, often took his kids hiking or sailing. At home, dinner discussions could end in screams and hollers, often pitting Molly against her conservative father on issues of the day.

Andy Ivins, her younger brother, recalled before her death: “If there was ever a contention whether something was white or black, it was between Molly and our father.” Her brother said he also gave Molly the nickname “Mole” because she spent hours burrowing into books.

Ivins enrolled at the elite St. John’s School, where she was editor of the student newspaper. Like her mother and grandmother, she attended Smith College, an all-women’s liberal arts school in Massachusetts, where she graduated in 1966.

Ivins studied a year at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris and attained a master’s degree from New York’s Columbia School of Journalism.

She began her journalism career with summer stints as a reporter at The Houston Chronicle. Carlton Carl, a contemporary at the paper, recalled the pair convincing editors to let them write what became a long story on local poverty, a daring topic for the mainstream daily.

Ivins, Carl said, “often came at things with a different angle than everybody else. That was the mark of a good reporter and a great columnist. She was always interested in the socially significant stories.”

Ivins joined the Minneapolis Tribune after journalism school, becoming the city’s first female police reporter, taking delight in the department naming its pig mascot after her.

But politics, especially Texas politics, were her first interest. In 1970, she returned to Texas, settling in Austin as co-editor of the liberal Texas Observer magazine with Kaye Northcott. Ronnie Dugger, then the Observer publisher, said Ivins and Northcott thrived by focusing on legislators and doings at the Texas Capitol.

“And Molly started laughing. That became her mode. She just went to town,” Dugger said. “I don’t believe Molly was in any way known as the person she is until she was set loose as a free person and free journalist on the Observer.”

Some two decades later, Ivins wrote of the Texas Legislature: “The beauty of the ‘Lege’ is that it always commits its disservices to the public interest with great style.”

Another time, she wrote: “The Texas Legislature consists of 181 people who meet for 140 days every two years. This catastrophe has now occurred 63 times.”

Truth told, she lapped up the shenanigans. “Legislators say funny things,” Ivins said, “and I just write what they say. Most of the time, they love it.”

She later described her Observer period as “a happy, golden time, full of sunshine and laughter and beer. . . . We liked to root for the good guys and nail the bad guys.”

In 1976, Ivins left Texas to become a reporter for The New York Times, first in New York, then at the state capital bureau in Albany and then as chief of the paper’s bureau in Denver.

Covering nine states, she dispatched stories from spots such as Window Rock, Ariz., and Kammera Ranch, S.D., until editors leashed her in New York in mid-1980 after she attempted to enliven an account of an annual chicken slaughter/celebration in Corrales, N.M. by using the words “gang pluck,” a descriptive that did not reach print.

Ivins remained in New York until 1982, when she accepted an offer to write a thrice-weekly column for the Dallas Times-Herald. The paper posted billboards stating: “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?”

Ken Johnson, then the paper’s editor, later recalled: “She tried never to make more than half the city mad on the same day. Eventually, they all got mad.”

After publication of her first collection of columns in 1991, Ivins’ popularity grew. She appeared on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” and occasionally on public television’s “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” And she was often called upon to explain Texas in a drawl that seemed to expand or contract as occasions demanded.

“For those familiar with the British Empire,” Ivins wrote in 1982, “Texans are very much like Aussies — they cuss a lot, drink enormous quantities of beer and don’t put up with much, uh, guff.”

Ivins was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1985 and 1988.

Some critics took offense at her earthy characterizations. Others sometimes questioned her fact-checking. Later in her career, her closeness to Democratic politicians (including former President Clinton) provoked Republicans to question her journalistic bona fides.

Ivins wrote of President Reagan and Nancy Reagan in 1989: “His mind is mired somewhere in the dawn of social Darwinism and she’s a brittle, shallow woman obsessed with appearances, but then it was that kind of decade, wasn’t it.”

She didn’t always align with President Clinton, however, stressing in 1996 her disagreement with his decision to shrink federal welfare programs.

“Welfare ‘deform’ will do terrible damage to children, and no one can pretend it could not be seen coming,” Ivins wrote.

After the Times-Herald folded in 1993, Ivins joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where she worked until becoming a nationally syndicated columnist in 2001. Her column, reduced to twice a week as she battled breast cancer, was picked up by nearly 400 newspapers as of last spring.

Ivins authored or co-authored 10 books. Several compiled columns including “You Got To Dance with Them that Brung You,” “Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead” and “Who Let the Dogs In? A Personal History of America’s Most Incredible Political Animals.”

For several years, Ivins’ home doubled as a foot-stomping salon of sorts for pals sharing her zeal for politics and the free press. She grew close to First Amendment activist John Henry Faulk of Austin, the radio satirist once blacklisted by CBS. She devoted time and money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which she vowed to include in her will along with the Observer.

She said last year that publications like the Observer, for which she served as a board member, are pivotal. “Unless we keep these little independents alive, we’re going to lose the whole thing, the whole idea of public-interest journalism.”

Committed to writing and speaking engagements, Ivins also relished wide-ranging conversations into the night. Her brother said: “That was her life, drinking, smoking and talking politics. That was her little slice of heaven for a long time.”

Asked once whether she saw herself as courageous for speaking out for progressive causes and against the tide of Republican leadership, Ivins said no. “I’ve always been surprised that sometimes people think that. I’m convinced that can you stand up and say what — whatever you think.

“What happens is that people are afraid to do it. And what happens when you do it, when you stand up and you say something that the majority doesn’t agree with or that everybody’s going to be shocked and outraged by, you stand up and say it, and you find out an incredible number of people agree with you.”


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