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One Thing About You

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Lou Dubose let me know, from his visits with her in January, that Molly was failing. I was kept in the East by a medical situation, but two days before she died I sat down for lunch in a bar in Cambridge and wrote her a letter, which was delivered to her home on Alta Vista Avenue in South Austin and read to her the day before she died. She opened her eyes to listen and smiled.

Monday, January 29, 2007A bar in Cambridge

Dear Molly,

From Lou I learn you are back home where you’re comfortable after the stay in the hospital. Pat’s and my thoughts are very much with you. She sends bundles of love to you.

I have been searching my mind this morning for any other columnist and journalist in my lifetime who has done as much good as you have for the people through the press. Woodward and Bernstein, perhaps, in their one glorious series of exposes—Watergate, ridding us of Nixon and his gang. But I can’t think of anyone to hold up against your achievement. My memory runs back to only three others, Marquis Childs, Walter Lippman, and James Reston, each very different from each other and from you. Childs was a voice for justice like yours, national, but so much less heard or read than you that there is no real comparison. Lippman and Reston, also during my time, did more, each in his own way, to thwart Lyndon on Vietnam and drive him out, than any two others; but the first had no compassion, and Reston was too much of the Times. No one, least of all Abe Rosenthal, could or would ever say that of you.

The thing about your achievement, Molly, is, yes, the excellent writing; yes, the hilarious and habitual nose-thumbing; yes, your rare (these days rare) close attention to the absurdities and hypocrisies of Congress and the Texas Legislature; yes, the wide lens of your compassionate mirth, from the homeless to the four-homed, from Austin to Washington to Baghdad. But the thing about it that makes it the largest achievement for humanity of any American journalist in my lifetime is what happens when one puts it on a scale: the weight of it. Your being syndicated in 350 or 400 newspapers is without parallel among progressive, liberal columnists of your range and quality. Take, for example, the penetrating and always germane Robert Kuttner. The last time I asked him, perhaps a decade ago, he had 20 newspapers. Add in your raucous, best-selling books, and the liberating effects of your swing-from-the-hip speeches to huge movement and non-movement audiences starting in the ’70s—why hell, Molly, the only comparison among humorists that holds up is to Will Rogers. Your achievements for compassion and common sense among Americans exceeds any other by a working journalist in my lifetime known to me, taking account together of both its passion and its sheer gross weight.

This happened because of who you are, but also of one thing about you. Do you remember the only criticism I gave you when you were on the Observer, once when we ran into each other at Matt Martinez’s El Rancho down on—was it East First? I said to you, “Molly, I have only one question: when are you gonna get serious?” and you replied at once: “When we have a chance to win.” And this you have been doing, now that we either win really or lose our beloved great country. Your answer reflected what you knew, as Jon Stewart knows in action now also: The way to people’s sense of justice is through their sense of humor.

Everybody had said so much about you by the time I embraced you at the big-do Observer benefit, all I remember being able to manage was, congratulations. So this here is what I have to say to you about you, at too great a length, as is my custom: in short, that you are the most effective journalist for compassion and justice known to me near or far across the whole of my lifetime.

Love, Ronnie

As usual, when we had an opening for editor or associate editor at the Observer, in 1970 about 30 or 40 applications arrived at our offices, five or six of them from journalists good enough for the job. The two strongest of all, though, clearly, were from someone named Molly Ivins, applying from Minneapolis, but hailing from Houston, and Billy Porterfield, the reporter and distinguished Texas writer. The decision fell to me.

Porterfield was appealing. He was and is one of the best writers working in Texas. He was an experienced reporter on Texas papers; he knew the ropes and the rogues. Under Porterfield, too, the journal’s literary side would have been transformed into the equal of the rest of it. Bill let me know, however, that he did not like politics.

I was dazzled by Molly Ivins’ clippings of her stories in the Minneapolis Tribune that accompanied her application. I hardly realized, because her reporting was so mature, that she was only three years out of college (Smith, Columbia, a school in Paris). The stories were energetically researched, pithy, well written, and ethically salient; as the reporter, Ivins was right there in the middle of them as a real reporter should be. Since there was no showing at all of a sense of humor in them, I could not have foreseen her blossoming into a humorist and a satirist of politicians; it was the boldness and fairness of her reporting that settled the matter in my mind. Kaye Northcott was in place as our associate editor, and with something approaching grief at not choosing Porterfield, I decided on Molly if Kaye would agree to their being co-editors. Kaye leapt at that, and the Observer became, as far as I know, the only all-woman-editorial-staff journal in the country at the time.

The New York Times hired Molly away from the Observer, but a story she sent in from the Rocky Mountain Bureau did her in with Abe Rosenthal, then the executive editor of the Times. In due course Molly, based first in Dallas, then in Fort Worth while working out of Austin, became the only funny and the most widely read liberal columnist in the United States. Her best-selling six books include the two she wrote with Lou Dubose on George W. Bush. She also established herself as one of the leading public speakers from the liberal point of view, while frequently speaking free before groups and for causes that she believed in. She was a great woman, and she became a great force for good.

She was presiding during a meeting of the Texas Civil Liberties Union in a palatial home out on Lake Austin during which I, being the speaker for the evening, berated the ACLU for upholding corporations’ historic and successful contention that they, being persons just like other people, have the legal and constitutional rights of persons, and for the ACLU’s opposition to limiting election campaign contributions on the argument that money is speech protected by the First Amendment. Closing the festivities, Molly said softly, “Well, I’m glad Ronnie’s not in charge of our fundraising.” In 1996, when we held the founding convention of an organization I founded, the Alliance of Democracy, at a ranch near Kerrville, Molly, one of our speakers, arrived in a bright red pickup. Her message to us was that while we were striving to subordinate giant corporations to democracy, we should have a lot of fun along the way.

Molly became the guiding force on the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation, which has published the Observer since 1994, and one of nine or 10 or so individuals across half a century without whom The Texas Observer very well might not have been able to continue. As the Times said the day after her death, the Observer was her spiritual home. Her Final Friday open-house parties at her home in a small jungle on in South Austin surely must have been one of the gayest, happiest traditions in the entire American liberal movement, teeming with reformers, tamales, ne’er-do-wells, beer, editors, chips and salsa, do-gooders of all styles, causes, and fashions, and loud, soft, and robust talk. Sporadically some of us suggested that Molly run for governor, but she did not take up the hints. In 1999 she was struck with breast cancer, but she continued writing, traveling, and speaking.

In a column last summer she gave some ground, but not much, to those who insist one must fight for what one believes with good manners. “I am still lamentably stuck in the middle,” she wrote, “—not that I hold with hating the haters … we can all see where that leads—but I am always tempted to shout them down. ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war.'” Last October, at a celebration of her in Austin, more than $400,000 was raised for the Observer. During a lecture at the University of Texas last November, she said, “I think that to be involved in politics is simply to be alive. … This is about our lives, and this country is our deal. We own this country.” In her last column she continued: “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush’s proposed surge.”

Gary Keith, Bob Eckhardt’s biographer, sent me Molly’s New Year’s missive to some of her Austin friends, which was dated last January 3:

Dearly Beloveds,

Two zero zero seven and I’m stayin’ alive, that’s the main thing. The doctors continue to find new ways to torture me. I’m in pretty weak shape now but planning to get better. A round of physical therapy may help me get my strength back. I’ve certainly kept up my weight. For that I owe a considerable debt and countless pounds to Blue Bell Cookies and Cream and a better than average appetite.

Being an invalid means you can almost always have your way when it comes to daily desires. That’s why I invited almost 50 people to help trim my Christmas tree in early December.

For Christmas I hauled out many cookbooks and made a menu with Sara Speights and Marilyn Schultz. This included Mare’s prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, Sara’s ginger-carrot soup, Kaye Northcott’s potatoes with heavy cream and gruyere, Courtenay Anderson’s spinach with artichoke caps at the bottom, and my sister-in-law Carla’s unsurpassed pecan pie. In addition to Carla, my sister Sara, brother Andy, niece Darby, and nephew Drew were on hand—a seated dinner for 12.

This might not seem like a big whup until you understand that my stove was on the blink and couldn’t be fixed in time because all of NASA’s engineers were otherwise occupied for the holiday.

Lo, came the miracle of Alta Vista Avenue. Ovens to the left of me, ovens across the street, as well as their owners, opened their doors to the elves. Andy said he liked carting things from house to house. It put him in the holiday spirit.

I visited some and rested some as the preparers prepared. It was lovely hearing the bustle of my friends and family getting a great meal together. My only regret is that I couldn’t smell the prime rib as it roasted across the street.

Meanwhile, I’ve taken up a new sport—shooting BBs from my lounge chair at the squirrels trying to rob the bird feeders in my back yard.

So now it’s the New Year and I want to give each and every one of you a hug and wishes for more good news on the political front. May the Ds avoid making bigger fools of themselves than the Rs, which seems like a doable deal.

From your as yet unsinkable Molly.

Ronnie Dugger is the founding editor of The Texas Observer.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.