Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins, 1944-2007

I was saddened this morning to learn that Molly Ivins, one of my favorite columnists, died last night of breast cancer. An unabashed liberal, Ivins had a writing style all her own. She could make you laugh out loud with one sentence yet give you a thoughtful insight with the next. Her language was sprinkled with Texan slang. As her syndication editor writes today

Shortly after becoming editor of Molly's syndicated column, I learned one of my most important jobs was to tell her newspaper clients that, yes, Molly meant to write it that way. We called her linguistic peculiarities "Molly-isms." Administration officials were "Bushies," government was in fact spelled "guvment," business was "bidness." And if someone was "madder than a peach orchard boar," well, he was quite mad indeed.

Of course, having grown up in Texas, all of this made sense to me. But to newspaper editors in Seattle, Chicago, Detroit and beyond--Yankee land, as Molly would say--her folksy language could be a mystery. "That's just Molly being Molly," I would explain and leave it at that.

He explains the importance of her presence: "She was an authentic female voice on opinion pages across the country with her passionate and eloquent defense of the poorest and the weakest among us and her glee in exposing the corruption of the most powerful."

Ivins was a constant needle in the President's side, having co-authored Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America with Lou Dubose. Even as a nationwide syndicated columnist, she kept firmly rooted in Texan politics. An admonishment she often repeated was something along the lines of, "Trust me the next time I warn you not to vote for somebody from Texas." Regardless, Bush issued a statement late last night:
Molly Ivins was a Texas original. She was loved by her readers and by her many friends, particularly in Central Texas. I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words, and her ability to turn a phrase. She fought her illness with that same passion. Her quick wit and commitment to her beliefs will be missed. Laura and I send our condolences to Molly Ivins’ family and friends.
But Ivins wasn't strictly pro-Democrat either. She took pride in speaking truth to power. Her Associated Press obituary says

"The trouble with blaming powerless people is that although it's not nearly as scary as blaming the powerful, it does miss the point," she wrote in a 1997 column. "Poor people do not shut down factories ... Poor people didn't decide to use 'contract employees' because they cost less and don't get any benefits."

In an Austin speech last year, former President Clinton described Ivins as someone who was "good when she praised me and who was painfully good when she criticized me."

Ivins' columns stuck out in the conservative Chicago Tribune. I can recall many "letters to the editor" expressing outrage at her column. A Tribune editorial notes today that Ivins inspired love or vitriol depending on one's politics. It begins

For six years, the trenchant columns of Molly Ivins have raised Cain on the Commentary page of this newspaper. In that too-brief span of time, not one of the many fine writers who share that real estate infuriated so many Tribune readers--or won the adoration of so many others.

When her column didn't appear, the former group had a good blood-pressure day, and the latter group suspected that, yep, it finally had happened: A newspaper that had twice endorsed the American president she most loathed had squelched her column. The great right-wing conspiracy had caught up with Molly.

If only. That would have been the better fate.

In fact, her illness was the reason her columns were sporadic recently. In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News last fall, she gave a decidedly un-Lance-Armstrong-like perspective of her disease: "I'm sorry to say (cancer) can kill you, but it doesn't make you a better person." Still, cancer had to take three shots at Ivins to bring her down, beginning in 1999.

The Texas Observer, where Ivins served as co-editor in the 1970s, has turned its Web site into a tribute to her. She supported the newspaper long after she moved on to bigger venues:
She remained convinced that Texas needed a progressive, independent voice to call the powerful to account and to stand up for the common folk. She kept our voice alive. More than once, when the paper was on the brink of insolvency, she delivered speeches and gave us the honorariums. She donated royalties from her best-selling book Shrub to keep the doors open. Her determination and efforts sustained the Observer as a magazine, as a family, and as a community.
Some of her work is collected here.

It's been written more than once that Ivins wouldn't want us to mourn her passing. As the Tribune put it, "You can bet, too, that there'll be quite a party in Austin, because Molly would want that and probably left instructions." Among them is likely a command to use her many awards as trivets, which she often did. When her editor asked her about this, she replied, "Well, what else am I going to do with 'em?"

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