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Book review: Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life

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Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life by Bill Minutaglio & W. Michael Smith (Public Affairs, 336 pages, $15.95 paperback).

I really miss Molly Ivins. I don't think I've ever said that about a journalist, but Molly Ivins was more than someone who showed up in the paper now and then as a syndicated columnist. For white Southern liberals, she was more like the smart big sister who got to say all the outrageous, funny things we wished we had thought of — like the time she wrote of a Texas legislator, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to start watering him twice a week." It's no wonder that the Dallas Times-Herald, for which she worked in the 1980s, once responded to public outrage over her columns by planting billboards throughout the city asking, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" She later used the phrase as the title of a book.

Before her death from cancer in January 2007 at 62, Ivins' columns were featured in nearly 400 American newspapers, she was a highly sought after speaker, and was regularly asked to provide commentary for a slew of news organizations. Her friends and enemies alike considered her more than a journalist, something like a force of nature. Part of her secret was her outgoing friendliness that allowed her to drink and joke with people she had skewered in print just days earlier. When she died, even George W. Bush, a regular Ivins target, stated that he respected her and would miss her quick wit.

The biography's authors knew Ivins well and were given access to scores of boxes of material the pack-rat journalist had saved. What they produced is not a rah-rah, promotional bio, but rather a candid, multi-layered look at what anyone who knew Ivins' background would consider an unexpected life.

Ivins grew up in a household of incredible wealth, social standing and political connections. Her father was president of Tenneco, at the time a major national oil company, and the family lived in Houston's uber-prestigious River Oaks neighborhood. It was a highly conservative environment, populated by oil industry moguls, civic movers and shakers, and some of the biggest bigwigs of Texas politics, all of whom she met and mixed with at parties in swanky country clubs. By high school, Ivins was a slim, stunning, six-feet tall redhead who intimidated the boys, swept through schoolwork, and began a rich intellectual life she would continue into adulthood.

In 1963, she went to Smith College in Massachusetts, where her disagreements with her family's politics deepened, and she fell in love with Hank Holland, a family friend and Yale student. Theirs was an extraordinarily intense romance, and the authors make much of Ivins' benumbed shock when Holland died in a motorcycle accident in 1964. Afterward, Ivins had other romances and affairs throughout her life, but she never married. After a year in Paris and another of grad school at Columbia University, she went to work for the Minneapolis Tribune. In 1970, she moved to Austin, Texas, to co-edit and do political reporting for the now legendary Texas Observer, a small-budget, weekly "crusading" newspaper that lifted many a Texan political rock to report on the slime beneath it. She was hired away in 1976 by the New York Times, which was looking to make its writing less stodgy. Ivins proved to be a little too "less stodgy," however, particularly when she called a "community chicken-killing festival" in New Mexico a "gang-pluck." She left New York in '82 and started writing her reportorial columns about Texas politics for the Times Herald. Her pieces about the Texas state legislature will, without a doubt, go down in history as some of the most insightful, courageous, and funniest political reporting in U.S. journalism.

When the GOP nominated Bush in 2000, her expertise on Texas politics earned her many new fans nationwide; she was the writer, after all, who had coined the nickname "Shrub" for our 43rd President. Her star continued to rise, but unfortunately she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, and although she underwent successful treatments, the cancer kept returning. It finally took her in 2007. She is sorely missed by her fans, and for good reasons. It would be delightful to hear what she would have had to say about our era of corporate malfeasance and tea parties. Molly, come back!

Quotations from Chairperson Molly

* What you need is sustained outrage ... there's far too much unthinking respect given to authority.

* The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion.

* I believe all Southern liberals come from the same starting point — race. Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.

* Any nation that can survive what we have lately in the way of government, is on the high road to permanent glory.

* During a recent panel on the numerous failures of American journalism, I proposed that almost all stories about government should begin: "Look out! They're about to smack you around again!"

* [On George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush] If you think his daddy had trouble with "the vision thing," wait till you meet this one.

* Next time I tell you that someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.

* I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

* [From her last column, Jan. 11, 2007] We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. 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.

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