Molly Ivins, who died last week at age 62, was my favorite columnist, and I miss her already. I admire the New York Times' Frank Rich; Hal Crowther's cultured filleting of the status quo is a sophisticated treat; and Leonard Pitts works at a level of craftsmanship that makes me envious. But Molly Ivins was a writer after my own heart.
A Southerner who had lived elsewhere and returned to Texas, she was an educated, insightful woman and a feisty populist who stood up for average citizens and cast a cold eye on America's money-soaked, self-declared "leaders." Her Texas twang and razor-sharp humor helped build a following until, before she died, she was the country's most widely syndicated progressive columnist.
Oddly, the funniest thing I read after Ivins' death was a quote from one of her former editors, Mike Blackman, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who said, "She could turn a phrase in such a way that a pretty hard-hitting point didn't hurt so bad." What nonsense; what silly newspaper executive-speak. The truth is, Ivins meant for her wit to sting like a bee, and it usually did. Take, for instance, the time she wrote in the Dallas Times Herald about a Texas legislator, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day." Public reaction to that quip was fierce, and led her paper to rent billboards in Dallas that read: "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" -- which, in turn, became the title of her first book.
At other times, Ivins' humor could be as dry as the Texas plains. Once, she told an audience about Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had given a former Enron honcho a position on the state public utilities commission, then received a $25,000 check the next day from Enron's CEO, Ken Lay. Ivins concluded, "Those with suspicious minds thought there might be a connection."
As central as humor was to Ivins, she also was, as she put it, "as serious as a stroke" about opposing prejudice, war-mongering, poverty, and politicians who give away the farm to their corporate pals while wiping their butts with the Bill of Rights. She was the first to warn us about Dubya, whom she knew from high school and for whom she coined the nickname "Shrub." She predicted his legacy of shallow, arrogant corruption, but at the time, too few people were listening.
In the past couple of months, Ivins rested from writing to focus on fighting the breast cancer that finally took her. In mid-January, though, she returned, in what she called an old-fashioned "newspaper crusade," which she must have known would be her last, urging readers to "raise hell" against the war in Iraq. "We are the people who run this country," she wrote. "We are the deciders."
She could have added, as she once told a group of overly serious liberal activists, "Keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it."
Memorable Quotations from Chairwoman Molly:
• "Politicians do not like to be made fun of. On the other hand, they are public figures. Nobody ever put a gun to their heads and forced them to run for public office. It is true that they have wives and mothers, but that's not my responsibility."
• On George Bush Sr.: "Calling George Bush shallow is like calling a dwarf short."
• On George W. Bush, when he started his first presidential campaign: "If you think his daddy had trouble with 'the vision thing,' wait'll you meet this one."
• On Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he declared that America was engaged in a cultural war: "It probably sounded better in the original German."
• When the Texas legislature was set to convene, she once warned her readers: "Every village is about to lose its idiot."
• "There are two kinds of humor. One kind makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That's what I do."
• Telling new-majority Democrats why they shouldn't "play nice" with the Bush White House: "These people are not only dishonest -- they're not even smart."
• On the Washington press corps: "Their coverage of the White House resembles the reporting, as it was, of the Court of Louis XIV ... I mean, I've never seen such a case of the emperor with no clothes, and yet, there they all are, taking George W. seriously."
• "To simply relish and enjoy the absurdity of what goes on every day and is treated very solemnly and taken very seriously by much of the world, is the secret of staying sane while covering politics in this country."