November 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

It isn’t exactly the warm correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.

The contretemps began last September, when Florence King, author of nine volumes of Southern humor and commentary and a staunch conservative, railed against liberal satirist Molly Ivins in an article in the right-wing The American Enterprise magazine. The headline minced no words: MOLLY IVINS, PLAGIARIST. King, 59, reported that while reading the best-seller Molly Ivins Can’t Say That…Can She? she happened upon references to her own 1975 book, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. It was true, King wrote, that Ivins cited her throughout, ”but never where it counts. She credits me on minor observations, but when the subject is politics — her turf — she plagiarizes me.” She also accused Ivins of adding more to one quote than King had actually said.

As expected, some have accused King of turning a case of careless attribution into personal grandstanding, or ”attempting to hang on to the cape of Molly’s notoriety,” as Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Richard Connor put it. But The American Spectator‘s R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. sided with King, writing that ”the cleverest and boldest commentator on the American left” has finally revealed ”the source of her prodigious talent…Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? Obviously she can, but only after reading Miss King.”

Ivins, 51, a syndicated columnist for the Star-Telegram, told The Washington Post she had a ”moral obligation” to apologize for the paragraphs ”that should have been directly attributed to Florence King,” but stopped short of admitting to plagiarism. ”I have no idea how the indirect quotations got scrambled up. I thought I had credited her every time I used her.”

That wasn’t enough for King, who issued a statement saying ”Molly Ivins brags that she’s a left-wing, aging Bohemian, non-lesbian journalist who fears no authority, so let me brag that I’m a gentleman, and that if we had the right kind of laws in this country, I’d challenge her to a duel over this.”

Luckily, it has remained a war of wits. The current issue of The American Enterprise contains, under the headline FIGHTING WORDS, both Ivins’ apology to King and King’s reply. Ivins wrote King that she was ”deeply ashamed,” admitting that her work had been ”inexcusably sloppy.” In rebuttal, King scolded Ivins for not paying more attention during the editing process. ”This is how you catch mistakes,” she chided. Both have refused to comment further, but Nate Nonoy, a former media relations executive at The American Enterprise, says King ”isn’t entirely satisfied” with Ivins’ mea culpa. ”She still has some reservations, and I think it’s made clear by the way Miss Ivins writes the apology.”

Perhaps he’s referring to Ivins’ parting shot. ”As for the rest of your observations about me and my work,” she wrote, ”boy, you really are a mean b—-, aren’t you?” And then she signed it ”Sincerely, Molly Ivins, plagiarist.”

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