A Tribute to Molly Ivins

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The real funeral service for Molly Ivins didn’t happen Sunday at the First Methodist Church in Austin, which ended with Marcia Ball singing “Great Balls of Fire,” but in October, when a thousand people gathered in Austin to honor her at a fund-raising dinner for The Texas Observer. It was a chance to celebrate Molly to her face, and not a few of us from out of town figured it was the last chance we’d have to see her alive. She had been fighting breast cancer for seven years. She never complained in public except to say that cancer hadn’t made her a better person, and told an interviewer last fall she had a good chance to go on for years.

That was Molly through and through. She believed that things could get better and that we don’t have to accept bad news, bad law or bad politicians. Her last column in January contained a phrase that expresses the core of her beliefs, one that should be slapped on bumper stickers and t-shirts: “We are the deciders.”

Molly believed in all the stuff you’re supposed to learn in high school civics: about all people being created equal, about power belonging to people and not just corporations and about the sacredness of the First Amendment. She believed above all that journalists ought to call out politicians and other public figures on their lies. That was her mission, and she did it better than just about anybody, and had a lot of fun doing it, something that set her apart from almost all other columnists and pundits.

Much has been made in the newspaper obituaries about Molly’s wit, and properly so. She could turn a phrase, but that’s not all she was about. She has said that one of the reasons she stood up to authority was because her father, a Houston oil executive, was such a martinet. That would be too simple a psychology. Plenty of people grow up with martinets for fathers, but they don’t become Molly Ivins.

I first met her in 1969 at an anti-war demonstration in Minneapolis. She had spent three years at the Minneapolis Tribune, and had created her own beat, covering the poor and the powerless. She was leaving to edit a small magazine in Austin called The Texas Observer. What the Observer lacked in circulation it made up for in hard-hitting stories that were followed in Washington and New York as well as in Texas.

She was joining an illustrious series of editors that included Willie Morris, a Mississippian who, as editor of the Daily Texan, had stood up to the University of Texas regents about segregation. The Observer always stood up to power.

About five years later Molly came to Vassar College, where I was teaching, to give a talk about journalism. She had become fully herself by then, having sharpened her wit on the follies of the Texas legislature. At Vassar she launched into one of her pet peeves about the libel law, that she couldn’t call the governor of Texas a dimwit. I think this was an exaggeration, because she certainly did call him a dimwit, and other choicer names, and got away with it.

What she resented was that the press as a whole didn’t regularly call the governor a dimwit, when its reporters and editors knew well this was the case. And furthermore the press didn’t regularly shout down the legislature for its dismal failure to help the poor and powerless. To help her explain, she brought a friend, a black welfare mother and activist. Molly described the failures of Texas politics using vernacular Texas talk that included what were then called vulgarities. The audience members–mostly middle-aged folks from Poughkeepsie–laughed, though they sometimes seemed to wonder if they ought to.

Once I made it back to Texas in 1980, Molly was as good a friend as you could hope for in someone who was famous and busy. She did a lot of speaking, often to small groups who were fighting First Amendment issues in out-of-the way places from Maine to South Dakota. But she found time to talk about a story, help you make a contact or plug a good book by a friend. After my daughter was born in 1994, I took her to Molly’s house in South Austin to spend a Sunday afternoon just visiting, and left feeling that the baby has somehow been blessed.

What worries me is that when people remember Molly they might only remember the sharp wit and the professional Texan’s turn of phrase. Or some might see her as merely a reactionary liberal who had been warped by her privilege: expensive private school, Smith College, conservative daddy. That would be a mistake.

Just look at her work and you can see the good human being behind it, someone who wanted what was right for the country and ordinary people. She believed in our country’s ideals. That’s why she couldn’t let lying politicians and foolish legislation alone. She wasn’t the kind of reporter who dug up dark secrets. She held up the mirror of ridicule to bad things that were going on in plain sight. I wonder how we’re going to make it without her.

Michael Berryhill is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at the University of Houston.