Remembering Molly Ivins
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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 mostly 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."
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.