Molly Ivins: America's favorite political whip
Hey thaaaaaaaayre darlin’, whatcheeeeew up to? It’s the wake-up call Texas politicians dread but also secretly relish — the one from columnist Molly Ivins, chief scourge of the good ol’ boys (and, lately, a few good ol’ girls) in the Texas state legislature and the woman Governor Ann Richards calls ”a Texas treasure.” In reporting her column for the Dallas Times Herald, Ivins, defender of the people’s right to know and the politicians’ right to screw up, phones hard-livin’ legislators, lobbyists, and fund-raisers at peak hangover hour each morning to dig for dirt (”C’mon, you’re making that up”), air her unsolicited opinions (”Give him a gold watch and get him outta there”), or simply regale her captive audience with the latest tasteless lege — short for legislature — joke. On this particular morning, however, Ivins is callin’ to commiserate with Richards’ former political consultant George Shipley, who claims to have suddenly lost faith in the mechanics of Texas democracy. ”This is Doctor Dirt — the meanest political consultant in the history of the universe,” Ivins confides, mid-dial, to a visiting reporter. ”Poor George” — the eyes widen in mock sympathy — ”he’s becomin’ sooo damned cynical.”
The word cynicism does not rank high in Ivins’ spectacularly colorful vocabulary, despite some 20 years of covering the down-and-dirty ”bidness” of politics for PBS’ MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and a variety of publications, including the Times Herald, The Progressive, The Nation, Ms. magazine, and The Texas Observer. To celebrate her caustic achievements, Random House is publishing her new best-of collection, aptly titled Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? A compilation of political essays on subjects ranging from ethics Texas-style to George Bush and the oil lobby, the book is a testament to its author’s enduring faith in the flawed and flagrantly absurd workings of the democratic process. ”Texas politicians aren’t crooks,” Ivins is fond of saying. ”It’s just that they have an overdeveloped sense of extenuatin’ circumstances.”
In a state mostly run by conservatives, Ivins’ politics — she’s a grass-roots populist — are hardly mainstream. So why is she so popular with nearly everyone? Perhaps because her shoot-from-the-lip style is a welcome relief from the tepid political commentary evident everywhere else. ”So much of journalism today is so bland and predictable,” says Myra McPherson, a longtime political writer for The Washington Post who is at work on a book about dissent in American journalism. ”Molly stands out — she’s our token iconoclast, our token voice of outrage.” Robert Sherrill, former Southern correspondent for The Texas Observer, agrees, describing Ivins as ”about as homogenous as a cowboy cocktail. That’s milk laced with whiskey,” he explains.
Ivins’ skill at rendering the political landscape with dry wit and vicious verve has even endeared her to many of the local pols she regularly skewers. ”I have known Molly Ivins since Hector was a pup. In her writing, she brings out the color of Texas politics like no one else’s can,” says Governor Richards, who has become a little less colorful herself since taking office. Adds former Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower, ”Molly is the epitome of what a Texas iconoclast should be. ‘Institution’ is far too stuffy a word to describe her, though. Molly is far too bodacious for that.”
Bodaciousness is the touchstone of Ivins’ style. ”Journalists make a terrible mistake writing about politics in so-called objective fashion,” she says. ”It just takes all the joy and juice and the humanity and rage and nobility and crassness out of human affairs. You can’t put dehydrated cowpie on people’s doorsteps in the morning and expect them to be interested in what’s going on in the world. Politics ought to be covered the way sports is, as a celebration of heroes and villains. It is,” Ivins insists, ”the world’s most fascinatin’ poker game.”
And she is one of its more flamboyant cardholders: a six-foot-tall, 46- year-old, dyed strawberry blond with a booming voice and a straight-from- the-gut laugh. ”Molly has this, uh, big, presence. She’s, uh, a big girl,” Sherrill, a large drink of water himself, says tentatively. ”She’s built just * right for what she says.” Ivins clearly relishes her ability to overpower people. ”Someone told me to lay off the speaker of the house the other day, and I said I would if he behaved himself,” she says, grinning. ”I don’t claim to have any effect on the Texas lege, but every now and again, I think I can stop some damn fool thing from being passed simply by saying we’re going to be the laughing stock of the whole nation.” And she doesn’t at all mind that her mouth gets her into trouble once in a while. ”I was always hopin’ to become a martyr to courageous journalism — it just never seems to happen,” she laments. ”I have always been a complete outlaw in relation to Texas politicos.”
She is an outlaw in relation to establishment journalism, too. Though she graduated from Smith College and the Columbia University School of Journalism, Ivins, who insists her epitaph will read ”She Never Made a Good Career Move,” spent most of her years working for marginal publications. ”Establishment newspapers,” she says, ”really don’t give you that much latitude.” Her one concession to careerism, a three-year stint as The New York Times‘ Rocky Mountain bureau chief, ended after Ivins attempted to describe a chicken-killing festival in a town in New Mexico as a ”gang-pluck.” ”I suffer from congenital irreverence and the Times is an institution that takes itself very seriously,” she notes. When the Dallas Times Herald made her an offer she ”couldn’t refuse” — the chance to say whatever she wanted-she was only too pleased to go home. ”I can’t get material like this anywhere else. I have never lost a political contest,” she boasts. ”Just on the grounds that my legislature is nuttier than yours.”
Texas politics are slightly more civilized than they were in the days when lobbyists controlled the lege with what Ivins calls the Three Bs — ”beef, bourbon, and blonds.” But there are still plenty of outrageous goings-on. ”Every time I say Texas politics are more sophisticated than they used to be, something utterly gross happens,” Ivins says. Last session, for example, one delegate left office as a consequence of a fatal crack overdose. ”Of course, being Texas, there was this loony footnote,” Ivins recalls. ”Before they discovered the body, the guy kept voting.” Meanwhile, the speaker of the house, Gib Lewis, a man Ivins describes as having the ”ethical sensitivity of a walnut,” is currently under indictment for allegedly failing to report a lobbyist’s gift. ”Of course it’s almost redundant to say that the speaker is under indictment,” Ivins points out. ”In fact it has been years since we had a speaker of the Texas house of representatives who wasn’t under indictment.”
In a state plagued by an oil crisis and a recession, Ivins sees other serious problems — including a hopelessly regressive tax structure, a crippled public school system, and the absence of effective environmental and gun-control laws. So why does she spend so much time, feet up on the desk, receiver in hand, laughing? ”The only alternatives are crying and throwing up, so you have to laugh. Though I guess,” Ivins adds, ”suicide would also be an option.”
For Doctor Dirt, the disgruntled political consultant, however, Ivins has a more upbeat suggestion. As the marathon phone call draws to a close, she abruptly offers the following down-home advice: ”Well Geeooorge, why don’t you just git so goddamned rich you can come back and buy someone into office.” Anyone who knows her will tell you that the last comment is part joke, part dare — as Ivins is aware, political buyouts make bodaciously good newspaper headlines.