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What Would Molly Say? | The Nation

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What Would Molly Say?

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What Would Molly Say?

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Google "Molly Ivins," and you'll come up with a number of posts headlined "What Would Molly Say?" It's been a frequent refrain of Molly's myriad friends and admirers since we lost her to breast cancer at just 62 in January 2007. For many readers, her unique combination of good humor, common sense, lightly worn erudition and political fearlessness made it possible to slog through the rest of the MSM with one's sanity (barely) intact. The demand for such journalism has only grown stronger as its supply rapidly diminishes.

I found myself wondering WWMS on the day Chris Dodd withdrew from the 2010 Senate race in Connecticut. The withdrawal, unlike Byron Dorgan's in North Dakota a day earlier, vastly improved Democrats' chances of retaining that seat, and brought to, um, four the number of incumbent Democrats who are planning not to run. (That's compared with six Republicans.) In the House, ten Democrats are planning to retire (compared with fourteen Republicans). Among the nation's governors, it is three Democrats (and four Republicans). Add it all up, and what do you get? According to that unerring guardian of Beltway bloviation--ABC News's The Note--"Democrats Are Dropping Like Flies." A contradiction, you say? Turns out that it, too, is the Democrats' fault: "You know things are bad for Democrats when a move that actually improved their chances in this fall's elections...was universally interpreted as yet another sign of the party's bleak prospects," explains Wall Street Journal ace columnist Gerald Seib. (Remember, he said "universally.")

Earlier the same week, I had a WWMS moment in reaction to the coverage of the "Underpants Bomber." Recall that when the so-called Shoe Bomber got past security in late December 2001, the Bush White House simply clammed up, and the media (and the Democrats) were happy to go along. The president did not mention it at all until a press conference six days after it took place. Meanwhile, after the shenanigans of Mr. Underpants, Barack Obama issued three public statements and announced two security reviews and a directive on how to try to correct the problem. So what did we hear? "In the Obama administration, protecting the rights of terrorists has been more important than protecting the lives of Americans," explained Newt Gingrich, who made more appearances on Meet the Press than any other individual last year. "I don't know that Obama has the same ability to reflect the emotions of the country as Bush did at certain points in his presidency," worried its host, David Gregory. And with almost breathtaking lunacy, Rudy Giuliani went on ABC's Good Morning America to insist, "We had no domestic attacks under Bush; we've had one under Obama." The show's host, George Stephanopoulos, did not think this rather unusual claim worth a follow-up. Lord knows what Molly would have made of all this...

Many of Molly's fans may not be aware that she spent a short, unhappy spell at the New York Times in the late 1970s and early '80s. She departed after then-executive editor A.M. Rosenthal objected to her use of the term "gang pluck" to describe a festival in Corrales, New Mexico, where people in the town of 3,000 got together to drink and cut the heads off chickens. I was nevertheless shocked by the churlishness shown toward Ivins in the venomous review of Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith's new biography, Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life (PublicAffairs), recently published in the paper's book review. For reasons I cannot fathom, the life story of this polymathic, proud liberal pundit was turned over to a conservative ex-tabloid gossip currently at work on an oral history of William F. Buckley. The reviewer, Lloyd Grove, pronounced Ivins's entire life "a pose" because she had been born to well-to-do parents, educated at good schools and spoke French. Never mind that Molly never pretended otherwise. (Her Times obit quotes her explaining, "I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds.")

According to Grove's logic, one is by definition a poseur if one does not adopt the exact mores and lifestyle choices of one's parents. Grove also complains that Molly's life does not provide for "the biography of a significant figure in journalism" because "Ivins never wrote the big, important book about Texas that she'd always wanted to." Well, far be it from me to be rude enough to point out that this argument is being made by someone who has never written a book of any size whatsoever. More significant, it reflects not only a misunderstanding of the biography in question--which is entirely about Molly's personal and professional progress and pretty much ignores the substance of her work in journalism--but also the historic role of the political pundit. Walter Lippmann was, uniquely, a political philosopher with a day job in journalism. Leaving his example aside, ask yourself: Did James Reston ever write a "big" book? Did Joseph Alsop? Did Robert Novak or Robert Bartley or even William Safire? None even tried. But were one to compare the collected columns of each of these infamous bigfeet with those of Molly Ivins, you'd find a journalist whose significance lay not only in her being correct about the underlying currents of American politics with far more frequency than any of those famous figures, but with better humor, sharper prose, greater erudition, deeper humanity and, perhaps most significant, genuine bravery. She was nearly alone in predicting the disastrous fallout of the 1999 decision to repeal Glass-Steagall and deregulate the banking industry. And in November 2002 she warned us, "The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win?... There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now."

As we observe the third anniversary of her death, we are ever more the lesser for her loss.

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