Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, who influenced my writing style more than any other living author, with the possible exception of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., died last week. I am still in mourning. Her death comes just a few weeks after another of my favorite, humorous, acid-tongued, brilliant columnist, Art Buchwald, died.
Ivins, 62, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, which recurred in 2003 and returned again in November 2005. She said, "Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that."
In the days after Ivins’ death I was struck by the range of voices singing her praises, from predictable leftie supporters Bill Moyers and Jim Hightower to poet Maya Angelou to humorists Dave Barry and Mark Russell. Heck, even Shrub himself, as she famously dubbed President Bush, made a compliment about her.
She would have been embarrassed about the attention and praise, judging by comments and actions in more than 20 tribute articles I read about her in the last week to prepare this piece. For example, two articles mention that she made a habit of using awards she won for her columns as serving utensils at meals.
Anthony Zurcher, her editor for Creators Syndicate, wrote that at one of her unforgettable parties at her Austin home he noticed her dining table was “littered with various awards and distinguished speaker plaques, put to use as trivets for steaming plates of tamales, chili and fajita meat. When I called this to her attention, Molly matter-of-factly replied, ‘Well, what else am I going to do with ‘em?’”
As Mark Russell put it, in the funniest thing I’ve heard him say in a decade, “Most people who speak for a living will tell you that every plaque or award represents a free speech. Some people put them up on their walls. Molly used them as trivets. Molly didn’t rest on her laurels, she ate off of them.”
Early career highlights include when, as the first female police beat reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, the department named its mascot — a pig — in her honor.
She was best known for covering the always-colorful Texas Legislature. She once said, "I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults."
I used to tell people I wanted to be a male Molly Ivins, by which I meant eloquent, witty, sharp, and good at capturing an image in just a few words. That was, of course, ignoring the minor differences between us. I was a Southern Californian male and she was a southern woman who shocked The New York Times by wearing blue jeans, going barefoot, and bringing her dog, named Shit, into the newsroom.
I had to chuckle at how The New York Times, famous for playing it safe with language, addressed this topic in the article reporting on her death. The article said she brought to work “her dog, whose name was an expletive.” I find it ironic that the Times apparently had a quandary over how to mention her dog without uttering a profanity. It is ironic because of her own odd relationship with The New York Times.
The New York Times liked her style and hired her in 1976 as a political reporter. You know how sometimes you can watch a couple and know that it will never work out between them? Such is the case with Ivins and the Times. She’s known for saying things shocking but accurate, like writing in her obituary of Elvis Presley that the scene at Graceland was part national cheerleading camp and part Shriners convention.
The Times is known for being straight-laced. They would edit the color out of her story. She has described her idea of hell as "being edited by the Times copy desk for all eternity." She has suggested that if she said "squawked like a $2 fiddle," the Times copy editors would change it to "an inexpensive instrument." In one story, Ivins described someone as "having a beer gut that belongs in the Smithsonian." That ended up in the paper as "a man with a protuberant abdomen."
The end came when Ivins was sent to cover a community chicken festival in New Mexico and she wrote a reference to it being “a gang pluck.” The newspaper refused to run the phrase and she and the grey lady parted ways. She returned to covering Texas politics. She got a larger audience and a syndicated column, and began writing about national and international issues. Her syndicated column ran in more than 300 newspapers at the time of her death
Let me give some examples of Ivins’ wit:
On vegetarianism: "I know vegetarians don't like to hear this, but God made an awful lot of land that's good for nothing but grazing."
On politicians: “If God keeps hangin’ around with politicians, it’s gonna hurt his reputation.”
On gun control: "I am not anti-gun. I'm pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives."
On Americans: "I think there's more of us who still believe that Elvis is alive than understand the Theory of Relativity, but that's all right. It's fun to live in a country with some peculiar people. How boring it would be if everybody was quite sane."
She knew her remarks were too sharp for some, telling People magazine in 1991, “There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity – like what Garrison Keillor does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule – that's what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel – it's vulgar." Boy, did she use that weapon.
Of Pat Buchanan’s hate-filled speech at the 1992 Republican Convention she wrote that his speech “probably sounded better in the original German.” Of ultraconservative U.S. Rep. Jim Collins, R-Dallas, in the early 1980s, she wrote: "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day."
Some readers and advertisers tried to organize a boycott over these and other statements made by her. Her editors rented billboards proclaiming, “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She”? I remember that slogan well as it became the name of the first of her six books.
It was around this time that I got to know and love her. Not only did I read it, I also started to encourage others to read it. I remember subscribing to a magazine filled with syndicated columns and hers was the only one I read regularly.
While reading the articles after she died, I was searching for a good description of her appeal and I think Salon said it best: “This, really, is the secret of Ivins’ genius – the balance of humor and passion. There are columnists out there who have one or the other, but without the two together, there's half a loaf. Columnist Dave Barry, for example — he beat Ivins to a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 — is funny, but you don't get the sense that he cares particularly deeply about anything. On the other hand, a columnist like Ellen Goodman is passionate, but goes down something like medicine.
As with many in the media industry Ivins has been concerned about the direction it is going. She told one newspaper she's tired of being asked if she minds being part of a ‘dying’ industry. ‘What really pisses me off,’ she asserts, ‘is being part of one that's committing suicide.’"
She did not buy into the blog versus "traditional media" battle. "I think this so-called war or competition between bloggers and the mainstream media is just plain silly. We all need to be supporting one another. I'm fond of many bloggers I read."
Ivins got involved in the civil rights movement while attending Smith College in the early 1960s. She was struck by the realization that she said creates all Southern liberals: "Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything."
I started reading her in college when I was having some of my own questions about race, as I was running the newspaper and writing columns and editorials at Cal Poly Pomona amid the Rodney King/Darryl Gates saga in nearby Los Angeles. I was searching for my voice at the time and finding that self-deprecation. Heck, I called my own column “Butki’s Babbles” and it worked well. Ivins was known to do the same thing from time to time.
While she wrote great copy, there is one book she never wrote much to the regret of me and others: her memoir. When asked about it, she said she had too many other things she wanted to do first. That’s Molly – always finding time for others.
After being diagnosed, she used her celebrity to increase awareness of breast cancer and encouraged women to get mammograms. When she recently grew too weak to write her columns, she dictated the last two.
Most of my heroes — Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, to name the first two that come to mind — are dead. Now Molly has joined them. I can picture those three in heaven with her telling a story that made them all blush and then burst out laughing.
Goodbye, Molly. I’ll miss you. You done good. And no, I ain’t done bragging on you just yet.
I want to close with one more gem of wisdom she once wrote: “Politics is not a picture on the wall or a television sitcom that you can decide you don’t much care for.”