These days, many Texans of the liberal persuasion ask themselves a question that is nearly spiritual in nature: What Would Molly Do? Molly was, to the uninformed, Molly Ivins, the late, great Texas journalist who always seemed to know what was coming down the pike. As far back as fifty years ago, she was at the forefront of issues that have taken on even greater urgency today: she fought for reproductive rights, labeled unlicensed-gun owners a blight, and named global warming as the threat we denied at our peril. But even more than foretelling our future, Molly knew how to pick off the bad guys (and they were mostly guys) with the weapon muy macho Texans feared most: ridicule.
Nothing made her happier than to give the opposition—Texas politicians, usually of the conservative persuasion—a very bad day. She was especially hard on those who went on to bigger things and so could make bigger messes, like George W. Bush, whom she memorably branded Shrub. Molly kept at it almost until the day she died at 62, in 2007, though her most famous, and funniest, lines live on.
Sometimes she skewered: President Bill Clinton was “weaker than bus station chili.” Sometimes she filleted, as when she said that if a Dallas Republican congressman’s “IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” Sometimes she charbroiled: the speech ultra-conservative pundit and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan gave at the 1992 Republican Convention, Ivins wrote, “probably sounded better in the original German.”
But there was always more to her than clever turns of phrase. She was as serious as a heart attack when it came to the deeper currents of our political culture. Threats to democracy, including the overwhelming influence of money in politics, was a topic she returned to again and again: “If what you have is a government of corporate special interests by corporate special interests for special corporate interests—which is indeed what we have—then you’ve lost the dream on which this country was founded,” she said in a 1995 interview. If she were alive today, Molly would most likely find that dream dashed almost beyond recognition.
That she often wrote in a Texas patois and spoke with a Texas accent made Molly a particularly revered figure here at home (and she was always Molly, just as her icons in sisterhood, Governor Ann Richards and state representative Sissy Farenthold, were always “Ann” and “Sissy”). Those who, today, get their information from one screen or another cannot possibly understand the power a print journalist could have back in the day. But from the beginning of her time as a writer and coeditor of the Texas Observer in the seventies, Molly was an unapologetic voice in the wilderness who promised like-minded Texans that they were not alone in the belief that a more progressive, inclusive, and just plain saner state was possible. She had the ear of Governor Ann and the powerful lieutenant governor Bob Bullock as well as, later, national figures like John McCain and, despite her knocks, President Clinton.
And because she was funny, and because she often wrote and talked like someone who was born before most Texans lived in cities and had a modicum of education—Molly simultaneously embraced and exploited our stereotypes—even those who disagreed with her couldn’t resist her. As she wrote during her Observer heyday, some “egg suck” pol who “ran on all fours and had the mind of an adolescent pissant” would see her and “beam, spread his arms and holler, ‘Baby, Yew put mah name in yore paper!’”
Of course, that wasn’t who she was in real life. Ivins could play the Piney Woods redneck, but she began life as a true child of privilege. She grew up in tony River Oaks, where her father was a successful oil company executive; she graduated from St. John’s, Houston’s premier private school, and then from the elite Smith College in Massachusetts. Her father, James, was a domineering, hyper-conservative type, nicknamed by friends and family “The General.” Molly, née Mary Tyler, rebelled against him seemingly from birth. Their political arguments—and other arguments, no doubt—inspired her gift for ridicule as well as her debating skills. Once Molly left home, she found new targets, using her intellect and her imagination to vanquish bullies and dunderheads wherever she found them.
The Texas Legislature, and Texas in general, had an abundant supply of both, of course. “All anyone needs to enjoy the state legislature is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people,” she wrote. “As long as you don’t think about what that peculiar body should be doing and what it actually is doing to the quality of life in Texas, then it’s all marvelous fun.” But the smartest way for a woman to take on the powerful in the seventies—and maybe even today—was to invent someone who wouldn’t seem like a threat. (At first, anyway.) Ivins was, after all, a female in male-dominated Texas, a place that wasn’t partial to women who were smart, who spoke their minds, and who didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time prettying themselves up. (Even Farrah Fawcett, a Texas icon who was the antithesis of Molly, had to make her own set of concessions to the place.)
Ivins went at the state’s, and then the country’s, biggest guns armed with nothing more than her wit, mocking and humiliating them until the populace here and beyond saw them for the fools and opportunists they were. As she explained: “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.”
Ivins’s fearlessness, and the persona she created, got her the fame she craved—the syndicated column in four hundred newspapers, the cable TV stardom, the best-selling books, icon status. But there was a price, for all of it—the fans, the honors, the wealth she never embraced. “Fame is like a wave,” she once told writer Bill Minutaglio, who cowrote the definitive Ivins biography published in 2009. “You will drown in it if you are not careful. It will consume you. It will eat you alive,” she added, talking about herself as much as the people she daily observed.
Molly drank to excess—it was a prerequisite for covering the Legislature—and even though she had her share of lovers (powerful, usually married men) and was surrounded by a coterie of hyper-protective friends, her loneliness was palpable to those who knew her even slightly, like me. Her brilliance, her wit, her anger, and, eventually, her power were the same gifts that kept people at a distance. She wrote about the needs of ordinary folks, and would go to her death defending ordinary folks, but from the beginning to the end of her life she could never have settled among them. In the parlance she understood so well, Molly always had bigger fish to fry.
Which is fine. In a Texas where abortion has been outlawed, where school children can be mowed down in classrooms by killers permitted to buy semiautomatic weapons, and where political divisions threaten to tear her beloved state to pieces—well, it’s no wonder Ivins is missed by her public with a wrenching grief many years after her death. “Keep fighting for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t forget to have fun doin’ it,” she once said. “Be outrageous . . . rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through celebrating the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was!”
What would Molly do? She’d tell her followers to stop whining and weeping, put on their big boy and big girl pants and figure this shit out. And you can be damn sure that’s the word she would use.