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Wednesday, April 4, 2007 06:57 am

That’s all she wrote

A tribute to Molly Ivins, the Red Rose of Texas

Untitled Document At the end of the film Venus, which stars Peter O’Toole as a decrepit actor holding off his final curtain, Vanessa Redgrave delivers a bleak line: “When you die, everyone wants to be your friend.” Though I knew Molly Ivins forever — since the Kennedy administration — I would never claim that I knew her well. If I implied any special relationship, I’m sure that Molly, listening somewhere, would roll her eyes toward the heavens in one of those gestures of wry exasperation that all of us who knew her scrambled to avoid. Even in graduate school, during the year at Columbia when I saw her every day, we were nothing approaching inseparable. If she felt that I was still struggling with testosterone management, small wonder. At our first meeting, when we were undergraduates in Massachusetts, I was a lamentably unevolved member of one of the more notorious “animal houses” on the Ivy circuit. As irony would have it, a couple of her suitemates at Smith were dating my fraternity brothers. The first time I heard Molly’s name, they were trying to “fix her up,” as we said in those days, with a suitable blind date. Apparently several of these experiments had gone awry; boys had been traumatized. Molly came with more intelligence, sarcasm, and undiluted Texasness than your average New England preppy had ever prepared for, not to mention an unsettling dose of pure height. As I recall it — there are living witnesses to correct my memory and rein in my exaggeration — we matched Molly with a power forward on a National Merit Scholarship, and still she put him in intensive care.
That some of these experiences might have been painful for Molly, too, was never considered. In spite of our lingering reputation for sissified Aquarian sensitivity, cross-gender empathy was almost unknown among college students of the ’60s. There’s more than a clue in a column she wrote about her treatment for cancer: “First they mutilate you; then they poison you, then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”
The last time I saw her: Key West, the winter before last, at a literary seminar celebrating American humor. Mutual friends had been circulating grim rumors about her health, but Molly looked great. She was warm and funny, remembered all the weird characters we had in common and seemed pleased to see me. After 35 years of agreeing with her on nearly every issue, I may, at 60, have gained a small measure of maturity in her eyes. (Can you tell that it mattered to me?) Thanks to a couple of drinks I was able, even in the inhibiting presence of my wife and other humorists, to tell her how much I’d always appreciated her work and relied on her instincts. She sipped her mojito. Neither of us cared much for praise close up. But last fall, when I heard that she was dying, I was glad I’d taken the risk. The death of a true original attracts a flock of fancy eulogists; everyone from Garrison Keillor to Ariana Huffington has said goodbye to Molly, sharing a wealth of anecdotes and unpublished Mollicisms that I wish I could match. It was a Texas-size sendoff that she richly deserved. But her inimitable style and personality, magnified in a media culture that worships personality, sometimes obscured what was most important about Molly Ivins. Her brand of commentary — intimate, indiscreet, defiantly regional, exuberantly scathing — does not survive her and will not be revisited in the corporatized, gadgetized, homogenized future of print journalism. Like H.L. Mencken, unlike a legion of pinch-faced whiners, Molly leavened her invective with glee. But forget her voice for a moment, if you can — the voice that at its most forceful said, “Listen up, boy, Mama’s talkin’ to you now” and then dispensed home truths your mother never suspected in language your mother never used. Forget the voice and concentrate on the message. Whenever anyone asked me whether there was an indispensable columnist, I’d begin with Molly and sometimes go no further. She was on message, column after column, for the past 20 years and more, and the message was the one our own Paul Revere would be carrying, if the news still came on horseback — the only message that could possibly save this country from wrack and ruin.
Every week Molly Ivins warned us that our birthright has been sold out from under us, that ruthless, careless corporations and the plutocrats who profit from them have created a cash-and-carry caricature of democracy. In her own words, which could not be mistaken for anyone else’s words: “Oligarchy is eating our ass, our dreams, our country, our heritage, our democracy, our justice, and our tax code.”
“Either we figure out how to keep corporate cash out of the political system,” she wrote last summer, “or we lose the democracy.”
That’s all she wrote. It’s the only message that matters anymore, and you can stretch it to cover every issue that signifies — the wars, justice, health care, the economy, the environment. While you were watching American Idol and playing with your electro-toys, boardroom bandits drove away with everything you had. Corporate flunkies such as George W. Bush (“the master of crony capitalism” — M.I.) and Dick Cheney are not the authors of our misery, any more than Donald Rumsfeld was the author of the cataclysm in Iraq. They’re just pieces on the chessboard where macro-capital plays its games, lightning rods for the occasional outrage those games provoke. If you ever doubted the organic connection between Texas oil politics and the Middle East bloodbath, you never read Molly Ivins. Her finest hour coincided with the gross polarization and rapid decline of her profession, along with the rise of a belligerent right wing that treated mainstream liberals like Marxists. By merely saying what was essential while most of the press labored to ignore it, Molly the prairie populist acquired a radical identity: the Red Rose of Texas, the Lone Star Lady of the Left. Because she was so entertaining, she was even invited on occasion to play that role among the Sunday-morning talking heads, on those badminton shows where the political spectrum usually ran from three degrees left of center to three degrees right of Otto von Bismarck. It was proof of her good nature — and incomprehensible to me — that she never, to my knowledge, actually laid hands on Robert Novak or Charles Krauthammer or hurled any heavy objects in their direction — at least nothing heavier than her contempt. The haughty, mean-spirited Krauthammer was always the true acid test of my affections. If you can read four tortured paragraphs of Charles Krauthammer without choking and cursing, you and I would never get along. Molly called him “the ineffable Krauthammer.” E-words like “egregious” and “execrable” worked for me. Molly’s solid presence among such people reminded us of their pitiful weightlessness, of the devil’s bargain they strike when they hold their places in the Washington food chain by pretending not to see what’s clear to a 6-year-old — “as obvious as balls on a tall dog,” Molly must have said somewhere. The Scooter Libby case is the hilarious quintessence of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” performed by the Blind Boys of Foggy Bottom. Did anyone with a fully oxygenated brain ever doubt that the White House (Cheney, Rove, who cares?) tried to burn Joseph Wilson for spoiling their fairy tale about Saddam’s awesome arsenal, that they went after him by outing his wife as a CIA agent, that if poor Scooter was the actual leaker he was under orders and set up to take the fall for his boss, probably for future considerations? What part of this was ever unclear? Yet the entire press corps followed Libby’s trial as if great truths were being revealed by slow degrees. Look at the journalists who testified: Novak, Bob Woodward, Tim Russert, Judith Miller — a virtual roll call of Washington’s best-connected and most compromised reporters. As Paul Krugman pointed out when Molly died, these were the deep insiders who preserved “highly placed” sources by playing dumb, back when she was warning us that the invasion of Iraq would immortalize George W. Bush as the greatest fool who ever sat in the Oval Office. And none of them, not even the ones who held his hand in secret, knew Bush half as well as Molly. When a print journalist of real substance and consequence dies in midsentence, so to speak, it’s hard in these times to separate her absence from a sense that she was the last of her kind. In Austin in November, Molly herself gave a speech titled “The Future of Journalism: Slow Death or Suicide?” Amid chain-shuffles, sell-offs, layoffs, buyouts of senior staff, and the replacement of columnists by blogs, a wave of retrenchment that almost no dailies have been spared, the American newspaper industry is foundering in plain view. With TV news long gone to the corporate dogs and every solvent magazine scrambling for the key demographics of dumb and nasty, where will the next generation find the free and obstreperous press on which every healthy democracy depends entirely? “Keep these little independent voices alive,” was the Ivins prescription. “I think that’s where the hope of journalism lies.”

Does journalism have a future? Back in the ’60s, idealists such as Fred Friendly sold it to us as a sacred calling, a kind of priesthood without the celibacy. The answer to what makes a journalist who matters, like Molly Ivins, is the same as the answer to what makes a journalist. Some of our classmates at Columbia had earned undergraduate degrees in journalism; many of them had years of newsroom experience. I remember her winking at me once — we were in the same boat, barely legal and stuffed with liberal arts — when some seasoned newsman questioned whether an Ivy League English major was ready to run in the fast lane with real professionals. Our confidence then was just youthful ignorance, the mother of arrogance. Yet experience never corrected us too severely. The recipe for an effective journalist, then and now, is 1 percent vocational training; 9 percent intelligence, talent, and experience; and 90 percent attitude. The proper attitude? Picture a touchy pit bull who pulls his chain off the ringbolt every time he smells smugness — privilege without humility — and mendacity. A real journalist, we were taught, only unsheathes his pen in the public interest, defending the social contract and protecting the citizen without leverage, the underdog. If you don’t believe that, you can write like E.B White and appear in 400 newspapers and you’re still a publicist, to me.
Molly Ivins had all the attitude in the world — she blamed it on an overbearing Republican father, a motivation with which I can identify — a world of attitude, and the gloves-off roadhouse prose style to make it stick. It didn’t charm everyone. When you die, they all want to be your friends — but they aren’t above a patronizing dig or two when you’re no longer there to defend yourself. I don’t know that “loneliness” plagued Molly any more than it plagues most intelligent people. I thought a line about her “battle” with alcohol was gratuitous and naïve. You don’t “battle” alcohol the way you battle cancer. Alcohol isn’t your enemy — it’s an old friend you can never trust but with whom you share many of your sweetest memories. Reporters who never drank were very rare in the newsrooms of yore, and of low prestige. One posthumous critic thought that Molly’s Calamity Jane persona, the one that hollered “Let’s rodeo!” to motivate a crowd of left-wing reporters, was a touch disingenuous for an upper-middle-class girl who went to Smith. But which of us educated exiles from the provinces (in the media, everywhere but the East Coast and LA) hasn’t amped up the old accent when someone from home walked into the room? Molly had to earn her spurs in Texas before she tackled the rest of the country, and Texas is a hazardous high-testosterone zone where a woman has to be a little larger than life to command attention. If she had detractors, I suspect that they were grandsons of the old boys who condescended to the great Dorothy Parker. As Regina Barreca wrote in Parker’s defense, “It’s not hard to dream up a conspiracy plot which demands that all women writers who speak successfully with a satirical tongue get lacerated critically, or, worse, that such women are presented as sad, shriveled shells of frivolous femininity, or — worse still, worst ever — that women who don’t act nicely get left alone.” Amen. A lot of men carry secret grudges against women who don’t make them feel smarter and taller. Molly Ivins could operate with Dorothy Parker’s scalpel, but she also packed a chainsaw in her toolbox, which cleared the way for the coarser chainsaw journalism of such women as Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. These editors who encourage Dowd might even have been able to accommodate Molly, but it was an appalling mismatch when she went to work for the Times in 1976. Encouraged by “legendary” editors who could never write a lick (Abe Rosenthal gets a century in pressroom purgatory for assigning Molly Ivins to City Hall), the tradition at the Times was to crush — to neuter — any writer who betrayed the slightest pleasure in manipulating the English language. Molly’s six years there must have seemed like 40.
Unfortunately, she was a few years ahead of the Times and ahead of her time. But she was a big girl who didn’t need the likes of me to stick up for her, then or now. My only quarrel with Molly Ivins was philosophical. She always claimed that she was an incurable optimist; I tend to swing the other way. Scrape away a few layers of accumulated irony, and I’m not so different from another of our contemporaries, songwriter Joni Mitchell, who says, “My heart is broken in the face of the stupidity of my species.” I followed David Broder once on a public-radio show. When the host told me that the tirelessly sanguine Broder had just proclaimed his great faith in the American people, I replied, “In my experience, anyone who praises the wisdom of the people is trying to get away with something.”
I like to think that Molly wouldn’t shout me down on that one. If she declared that Texas legislators were dumber than houseplants and root vegetables, she must have considered the intelligence of the people who voted for them. One of her last columns noted the difference between populists, who are born with the ability to recognize their friends and their enemies, and the liberals who like to split hairs and set traps for each other. She was never an ideologue, of course, but a one-of-a-kind, organic, hands-on populist. As I see it, it was never the wisdom but the ornery, dirt-plain humanity of people that won her heart. And it was probably a much bigger heart, to begin with, than most of us ever brought to the newsroom.

Hal Crowther’s book of essays Gather at the River was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism. He was the author of “The jig is up,”    published in the Dec. 14 edition of Illinois Times.
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