This is a series of tributes to Molly Ivins, a writer of passion and principle and a longtime friend of the magazine. Also, listen to Molly Ivins’s last interview with Laura Flanders on RadioNation.
Anthony D. Romero
executive director, American Civil Liberties Union
I was personally and deeply saddened by the death of legendary journalist and columnist Molly Ivins, who passed away on January 31 after a long battle with cancer.
Molly was a much-loved member of the ACLU family, a steadfast supporter of civil liberties, and I had the highest respect for her staunch commitment to the protection of individual freedoms. Her cutting wit, remarkable intellect and down-home wisdom will be terribly missed by everyone at the ACLU.
Molly, in her ever-folksy style, used her recent columns to point out how the Bush Administration, in the name of national security and patriotism, has curtailed Americans’ constitutional rights and usurped excessive power. In a July 2005 column, she wrote: “We suffer the worst attack on this country since Pearl Harbor, and the Bush administration sends the FBI after the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU exists to protect every citizen’s rights as defined in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States. The ACLU works solely through the legal system: It does not advocate violence, terrorism or any other damn thing except the Bill of Rights. Since when is that extremist?… We are living in a time when our government is investigating an organization that stands for the highest and best American ideals.”
In an interview for a documentary on the ACLU, Molly commented on the ACLU’s unrelenting persistence in defending religious liberty: “That principle,” she said, “is so important that it’s worth being a pain in the ass about. And that’s what the ACLU is.” Ironically, the New York Times wouldn’t let us print that quote in Molly’s death announcement because of the word “ass.” I’m sure Molly would have laughed out loud.
Molly believed so strongly about defending our freedoms and our liberties, even–or perhaps especially–if it meant raising hell or being a pain in the ass, that she named the ACLU in her will, and she encouraged others to do the same. “I am writing to you on the cheerful topic of croaking,” she began a 2004 letter to ACLU members. “Think about the hell the ACLU can raise with your money. They’ll be out there beating those in power over the head with the Bill of Rights when we all lie a-moldering. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with my worldly goods than fund folks who will be a pain in the ass to whatever powers come to be.”
I first met Molly at a wine-tasting fundraiser in New York for LGBT issues. Throughout the meal, we would each move around to different tables. I had the misfortune of following Molly around the entire night, which meant that I was always less funny and at each table the wine glasses were already empty.
My favorite memory of Molly was in Texas–Molly’s home state. It was my first year on the job as executive director of the ACLU, and Molly was the keynote speaker at our staff conference that year. After addressing the crowd, she invited everyone back to her home. Hundreds of people took her up on that offer, piling into her backyard. She shared stories, made us laugh and then opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to share a story, sing a song, recite a poem or do whatever else they pleased.
As a hopeless romantic, the only words I knew by heart were the lines from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo first laid eyes on his true love:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear….
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
I knew then, as I recited Shakespeare’s words while looking into Molly’s eyes–the Juliet to my gay Romeo–that surely for earth she was too dear.
“I don’t have any children,” Molly wrote, “so I’ve decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin. I figure freedom and justice beat having your name in marble any day. Besides, if there is another life after this one, think how much we’ll get to laugh watching it all…. We may not be able to take it with us, but we can still fight for freedom after we’re gone.”
Sadly, our dear Molly–who taught our torches to burn bright–is gone. We miss her terribly, but surely she is still fighting for freedom, and I hope that she is laughing–watching us raise hell.
From too many miles away, I read the obituaries for the columnist Molly Ivins. The British Guardian published an appreciation with a charming photograph and other newspapers noted her death, but Molly Ivins demands a more visceral form of mourning because it’s not just her prose we’ll miss, it’s her presence.
The first time I saw her stride onto a stage (in Boulder, I believe, in the mid-1990s) I felt reassured. Here was Ivins: enormously tall, clear, adamant, absolutely undaunted. It seemed as if she cleared the air and in so doing invited the rest of us to inhale deeper, talk louder and live more largely.
One of the truly brave hearts in journalism, Ivins had a daring that gave us courage. Like Dorothy’s dog, she drew back the fancy-looking drapery of intimidation and spin to reveal the shriveled-up wicked wizards. She cut the despots down to a size that the rest of us could bear to grapple with.
For us women, Ivins broke the rules for participation in the public realm. She didn’t demur, didn’t giggle, didn’t pretend for an instant not to care. She talked as forthrightly about cancer as she did about the Klan. “Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun,” she wrote after being diagnosed with the disease in 1999. “First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”
Her answer to the KKK was to defend to the death the bigots’ right to march and then to encourage mass-mooning of the marchers. (Listen to her last interview on RadioNation.)
Politics, she said, is nothing you can leave to politicians. “Politics is about you and me. Those people in Washington we just hired to drive the bus for a while.” On her last appearance on RadioNation in 2005, I asked her for advice on remaining upbeat in hard times. “Things are not getting worse,” Ivins replied. “Go back and read leftists in times past and things were always this bad. That’s very consoling.” On the other hand, she added, things probably will get worse. “What that means is, these are going to turn out to be the good old days. Think what a fool you will feel like if you don’t enjoy them now while you have the chance.”
“You have to have fun while you’re fighting for freedom,” said Molly.
Hers was a generous confidence. She made us believe that if she could speak with such clear-as-a-bell conviction, so could we. If she could be joyous in the fight, so can we. Ivins summoned us to the task by calling us (all of us, strugglers on the left) her “beloveds.”
So it’s right that we mourn Molly, but it’d be better if we became more like her. I’m willing to have fun, but I want to see more fight. Breast cancer is taking our she-roes. For starters, how about a real defense appropriation? Bush’s budget plan includes $623 billion for the military next year; instead of $623 billion for Bush, how about $623 billion to stop breast cancer?
Founding editor, The Texas Observer
Molly Ivins was more than one of the stars of the progressive media in her lifetime. She was the one of these stars who reached so many people with her down-home explanations and serial horse-laughs that in exchange for the money she earned for the mainstream media, they permitted her to penetrate the soul of the nation with reverberating effects.
After her education at Smith and Columbia and in Paris, her three years’ work on the Minneapolis daily marked her as one of the best reporters in the country. But she chose then to join The Texas Observer and regale its discriminating readers with the absurdities of her home state’s legislature. Hired back to the responsible big time by the New York Times, she did herself in with her boss there with her story describing a local chicken-plucking contest as a “gang pluck.” With her high intelligence, she had perceived that the way to the people’s sense of justice detours through their sense of humor. Brave, sagacious and dedicated, she then simply set forth on her own and became the only always-funny and the most widely read liberal, progressive and populist columnist in the country. Her syndication in 350 to 400 newspapers was without a parallel for a leftist columnist in the nation’s newspapers. 60 Minutes even gave her a tumble.
In her last column, calling everyone into the streets to stop the war against Iraq, she gave away one of her secrets: “Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous.” She never married, maybe never even had a beau, but surely she had as large a family of loving admirers as anyone in the media.
Taking into account her six bestselling books and the sheer quantity of her publication, I told her in a letter that was read to her the day before she died that she was the most effective columnist and journalist for compassion and justice known to me near or far in my lifetime.
Author and former editor, The Texas Observer
On a Sunday in September, Molly Ivins caught an early-morning flight from Austin to Flagstaff, Arizona. She had just concluded yet another six-week regimen of chemotherapy aimed at checking the metastasizing disease that had started as breast cancer in 1999. From Flagstaff she traveled to Lee’s Ferry to begin a twelve-day rafting trip on the Grand Canyon with her longtime river-running friend Dave Richards, a Texas labor and civil rights lawyer. She wasn’t dying. She was living.
On January 31, the Texas journalist whose syndicated column ran in more than 360 newspapers died at her Austin home in the company of friends and family and her beloved black standard poodle, Fanny.
In the canyon, Molly had a chance encounter with a Texas politician, a tall, stately former Republican senator she might have considered a reasonable candidate for governor in this red state if he hadn’t worked so hard to dismantle our civil justice system.
“I can’t seem to get away from them,” she said after the trip.
And so she couldn’t. In a private room in the oncology wing of Austin’s Seaton Medical Center a week before she died, at times in a voice so low it was inaudible, Molly quizzed a Democratic State Rep who had come to visit. She wanted the inside story of the failed attempt to topple the intellectually corrupt and autocratic Speaker of the Texas House. She had watched the process from her home in South Austin and was furious with the House Democrats she believed had been bought off by the Republican Speaker and his corporate sponsors. From her hospital bed she was shopping around for a credentialed reporter who would send a certified letter to every Democratic House member who had voted for the Speaker, demanding interviews and a public accounting of how much money they were promised for their votes.
At the time of her death, Molly was president of the nonprofit board that published The Texas Observer. She had come to the Observer in 1970 as a co-editor, after working the police beat at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In Austin in the early ’70s the best political reporting was done in bars and private clubs, working the good old boys from the Lege, the lieutenant governors’ and governors’ office. Molly found her milieu there, gradually appropriating her subjects’ voices and melding them into the distinct voice in which she would write for the next thirty years. (She also encountered an occupational hazard common to our profession, alcohol, with which she struggled for more than thirty years until checking herself in to what she called “drunk school,” followed by regular AA meetings for the last eighteen months of her life.)
Molly moved from the Observer to the New York Times, where the voice she had developed in Austin–atypical of a Smith College graduate conversant in French–never quite fit. Her description of a community chicken slaughter in New Mexico as a “gang pluck” caught the attention of Times editor Abe Rosenthal, who told her he suspected she had tried to slip an off-color joke into her copy. “Abe, you’re a smart man,” Molly replied. Rosenthal pulled her off the Rocky Mountain desk and assigned her to metro coverage. She would move from the Times to the Dallas Times-Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and into syndication.
Her final column, dictated to her administrative assistant, Betsy Moon, was a full-throated assault on the failed and dishonest war George Bush and Dick Cheney had begun and that only the American public can now end.
She said she would write about nothing else until the war in Iraq ended. She was beginning what she described as “an old-fashioned newspaper campaign” focused on one subject–the Bush Administration’s disaster in Iraq.
Her campaign ended prematurely on January 31.
Open Society Institute
Damn if Molly Ivins didn’t up and die on the day Joe Biden said Barack Obama might be the first clean black man to run for President, both stories sharing the front page of the New York Times the day before Groundhog Day. Lucky for Biden, and every other politician “leaving a village without its idiot” or “weaker than bus station chili.” Too bad, and much too soon, for the rest of us.
I met Molly when I was running the Texas ACLU in the 1980s. You wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of her columns–though many of her targets, like President Bush, paid at least grudging tribute to her. But boy, was she ever a loyal friend. She spoke at every ACLU event she was asked to headline, from Beaumont to Berkeley. And such was her devotion to the Texas Observer, the hardy pillar of the independent press where she cut her journalistic teeth, that ill as she was, she insisted on being driven in an ice storm to its most recent fundraiser last month. A God who could take both Molly and her dear friend Ann Richards in the span of a few months must have no sense of humor–or more likely, a very good one, in need of constant stimulation.
Molly’s humor, it must be noted, had the edge it did because it had a moral core as steady and fixed as the lone star. On the too-rare occasions when she ditched the jokes and wrote from pure, tempered anger on, say, the death penalty or the Bush Administration’s gutting of habeas corpus, there was no voice registering a clearer call to conscience. There are times when it hurts too much to laugh, and this is one of them.
Washington Correspondent, The Nation
Molly Ivins always said she wanted to write a book about the lonely experience of East Texas civil rights campaigners to be titled No One Famous Ever Came. While the television screens and newspapers told the stories of the marches, the legal battles and the victories of campaigns against segregation in Alabama and Mississippi, Ivins recalled, the foes of Jim Crow laws in the region where she came of age in the 1950s and ’60s often labored in obscurity without any hope that they would be joined on the picket lines by Nobel Peace Prize winners, folk singers, Hollywood stars or senators.
And Ivins loved those righteous strugglers all the more for their willingness to carry on.
The warmest-hearted populist ever to pick up a pen with the purpose of calling the rabble to the battlements, Ivins understood that change came only when some citizen in some off-the-map town passed a petition, called a Congressman or cast an angry vote to throw the bums out. The nation’s most widely syndicated progressive columnist, who died January 31 at age 62 after a long battle with what she referred to as a “scorching case of cancer,” adored the activists she celebrated from the time in the late 1960s when she created her own “Movements for Social Change” beat at the old Minneapolis Tribune and started making heroes of “militant blacks, angry Indians, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers.”
“Troublemaker” might be a term of derision in the lexicon of some journalists–particularly the on-bended-knee White House press pack that Ivins studiously refused to run with–but to Molly it was a term of endearment. If anyone anywhere was picking a fight with the powerful, she was writing them up with the same passionate language she employed when her friend the great Texas liberal Billie Carr passed on in 2002. Ivins recalled Carr “was there for the workers and the unions, she was there for the African-Americans, she was there for the Hispanics, she was there for the women, she was there for the gays. And this wasn’t all high-minded, oh, we-should-all-be-kinder-to-one-another. This was tough, down, gritty, political trench warfare; money against people. She bullied her way to the table of power, and then she used that place to get everybody else there, too. If you ain’t ready to sweat, and you ain’t smart enough to deal, you can’t play in her league.”
Molly Ivins could have played in the league of the big boys. They invited her in, giving her a bureau chief job with the New York Times–which she wrote her way out of when she referred to a “community chicken-killing festival” in a small town as a “gang-pluck.” Leaving the Times in 1982 was the best thing that ever happened to Molly. She settled back in her home state of Texas, where her friend Jim Hightower was about to get elected as agricultural commissioner and another friend named Ann Richards was striding toward the governorship. As a newspaper columnist for the old Dallas Times Herald–and, after that paper’s demise, for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram–Molly began writing a political column drenched in the good humor and fighting spirit of that populist moment. It appealed beyond Texas, and within a decade she was writing for 400 papers nationwide.
As it happened, the populist fires faded in Texas, and the state started spewing out the byproducts of an uglier political tradition–the oil-money plutocracy–in the form of George Bush and Dick Cheney.
It mattered, a lot, that Molly was writing for papers around the country during the Bush interregnum. She explained to disbelieving Minnesotans and Mainers that, yes, these men really were as mean, as self-serving and as delusional as they seemed. The book that Molly and her pal Lou Dubose wrote about their homeboy-in-chief, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Random House, 2000), was the essential exposé of the man the Supreme Court elected President. And Ivins’s columns tore away any pretense of civility or citizenship erected by the likes of Karl Rove.
When Washington pundits started counseling bipartisanship after voters routed the Republicans in the 2006 elections, Molly wrote, “The sheer pleasure of getting lessons in etiquette from Karl Rove and the right-wing media passeth all understanding. Ever since 1994, the Republican Party has gone after Democrats with the frenzy of a foaming mad dog. There was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, not to mention the trashing of both Clinton and his wife–accused of everything from selling drugs to murder–all orchestrated by that paragon of manners, Tom DeLay…. So after 12 years of tolerating lying, cheating and corruption, the press is prepared to lecture Democrats on how to behave with bipartisan manners.
“Given Bush’s record with the truth, this bipartisanship sounds like a bad idea on its face,” Ivins continued, in a column that warned any Democrat who might think to make nice with President and his team that “These people are not only dishonest–they’re not even smart.”
Her readers cheered that November 9, 2006, column, as they did everything Molly wrote. And the cheers came loudest from those distant corners of Kansas and Mississippi where, often, her words were the only dissents that appeared in the local papers during the long period of diminished discourse following 9/11. For the liberal faithful in Boise and Biloxi and Beaumont, she was a lifeline–telling them that, yes, Henry Kissinger was “an old war criminal,” that Bush had created a “an honest to goodness constitutional crisis” when it embarked on a program of warrantless wiretapping and that Bill Moyers should seek the presidency because “I want to vote for somebody who’s good and brave and who should win.” (The Moyers boomlet was our last co-conspiracy, and in Molly’s honor, I’m thinking of writing in his name on my Democratic primary ballot next year.)
For the people in the places where no one famous ever came, Molly Ivins arrived a couple of times a week in the form of columns that told the local rabble-rousers that they were the true patriots, that they damn well better keep pitching fits about the war and the Patriot Act and economic inequality, and that they should never apologize for defending “those highest and best American ideas” contained in the Bill of Rights.
Often, Molly actually did come–in all of her wisecracking, pot-stirring populist glory.
Keeping a promise she’d made when her old friend and fellow Texan John Henry Faulk was on his deathbed, Molly accepted a steady schedule of invites to speak for local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union in dozens of communities, from Toledo to Sarasota to Medford, Oregon. Though she could have commanded five figures, she took no speaker’s fee. She just came and told the crowds to carry on for the Constitution. “I know that sludge-for-brains like Bill O’Reilly attack the ACLU for being ‘un-American,’ but when Bill O’Reilly’s constitutional rights are violated, the ACLU will stand up for him just like they did for Oliver North, Communists, the KKK, atheists, movement conservatives and everyone else they’ve defended over the years,” she told them. “The premise is easily understood: If the government can take away one person’s rights, it can take away everyone’s.”
She also told them, even when she was battling cancer and Karl Rove, that they should relish the lucky break of their consciences and their conflicts. Speaking truth to power is the best job in any democracy, she explained. It took her to towns across this great yet battered land to say: “So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”