In their new biography of Molly Ivins, Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith chronicle the personal and journalistic arc of Texas’ late, lamented tormentor of the right. The excerpt below recounts Ivins’ decision in 1970 to leave her first post-graduate reporting job at the Minneapolis Tribune for a co-editorship at the Observer. Ivins’ romance with political activist Jack Cann had soured, and she was losing patience with the Tribune‘s “objective” journalism. When we pick up the story, Ivins has already created a ruckus at the paper by writing inflammatory memos to her editors and criticizing their decisions.
The weather was changing, winter was finally fading. Molly had recently attended the memorial service for veteran socialist leader V. R. Dunne, where Farrell Dobbs, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, had spoken. She was writing more pissed-off memos to colleagues at the paper (“thanks for another piece of shit on your editorial page”). Nothing, really, as far as she was concerned, was going to change at the Minneapolis Tribune. She was also convinced that her relationship with Jack Cann was irreparable. She was writing to her friends and talking about the difficulties and worries of living with men, and also about not being politically radical enough. Her soul-searching extended to the core notions of what journalism was all about; she increasingly mulled the worth of objectivity. Living with an activist, being confronted by his accusations, had clearly affected her thinking not just about personal relationships but also about her image as a journalist trained to be neutral and objective in the extreme. She knew she wanted to leave Minnesota, and she knew that some people still viewed her through the prism of her upbringing. She had been offered a pointed analysis of her life:
[Y]ou have some of the biggest, fattest establishment labels going—some little WASP prep school, some lawyer father, some Smith College, some junior year abroad, some Columbia Journalism School master’s degree, some Minneapolis paper. You have tried … to convince people that you were not a part of those worlds, that you were different, the ghetto kid who was hanging around those honkies just for a big yuk-yuk and also to hone your fine mind on all the books in the library, but you were never one of them, no no.
She decided to write one more internal Fuck You memo, this one asking editors what constituted a “conflict of interest” at the paper-asking if it was a conflict to have “a Boycott Grapes sticker on a car, a McCarthy for President sticker on a car, a Peace & Freedom Party sticker? Is it a conflict of interest to work for a political candidate in any way? What about writing freelance articles for politically oriented publications? Say ‘New Republic?” The issue was personal, of course. She was telling friends she had been in love with Jack Cann, perhaps the city’s most consistent activist-and she was covering the protests and issues he knew better than most people in the city. She had been at his trial, helping his legal defense. She had canvassed the neighborhoods with him.
That spring in Texas, Terry O’Rourke ran into Ronnie Dugger, longtime founder-editor-publisher of The Texas Observer. Dugger told O’Rourke that he was fielding applications for editors. O’Rourke mentioned Ivins. She had continued to read the Observer and she told friends that the publication consistently painted a portrait of a heinous state. She was a long-distance admirer of Dugger, who fought for years to keep the publication afloat, and she had once told Jack Cann that Dugger was one of her heroes. She quickly applied and sent a résumé and some clips to Texas (including a story she had done about once attending the same summer camp as LBJ’s daughter). Her application included some of the stories she had done at the Tribune on the student upheavals in Minneapolis. Dugger thought they were very well reported and had a “boldness and fairness” but “no showing at all of a sense of humor in them.”
He and the Observer staff, always in dire financial shape, decided to bring her to Austin for an interview. She arrived at Dugger’s house with a six-pack of beer. Dugger, associate editor Kaye Northcott, and business manager Cliff Olofson were impressed. She was funny and she seemed really alive, chortling about Texas, about growing up in Houston. Northcott thought that she was damned tall. Northcott had roots in the Midwest but was raised in Houston, so she knew about the River Oaks neighborhood and about private schools like St. John’s. She was impressed that Ivins didn’t seem to carry any airs, but she also sensed that Ivins wasn’t overly broadcasting her pedigree. “I knew her family lived in River Oaks,” says Northcott. “She’d rather that people didn’t know that.”
Dugger eventually narrowed his choice down to five or six candidates, with Ivins and Billy Porterfield (her old colleague at the Houston Chronicle) as the finalists. Dugger liked Porterfield’s literary inclinations but wondered if Porterfield was averse to politics in some way. Dugger began to look more closely at Ivins and eventually offered Northcott and Ivins positions as co-editors. They decided to pay themselves the same amount of money that state legislators got-about $8,000 a year.
Ivins made a collect call from Texas and told Wallace Allen, her editor in Minnesota, that she was resigning. When she got back to Minnesota, a friend handed her a hand-drawn award: The “Chutzpah Of The Month Award- presented, with deepest feelings of admiration to Mary T. Ivins for calling Wally collect to resign.”
After she resigned, she began writing what can only be described as The Mother of All Fuck Off Stories—a piece that would appear in the local alternative paper in Minneapolis. It was a raised middle finger of colossal proportions, directed at the man who had hired her and to whom she had sent the polite letter of resignation. Some of her friends revered the piece but said that she had recklessly quoted Tribune staffers and put them in danger of getting fired. The story ran across eight pages in the August 1970 issue of the Twin Citian, and it both shredded her editors and neatly outlined her philosophy that objectivity was virtually useless. The defining piece, one of the best tools for understanding her entire career, was written against the backdrop of several personal matters: being best friends with men trying desperately to avoid the draft, living with a man who was one of the city’s most intense activists, thinking about leaving the country as part of the Peace Corps, thinking of traveling to Russia, writing for The Militant, chiding friends who were working for conservative politicians, telling people she was insecure about her physical appearance and her sexuality. It was the culmination, perhaps, of other things, too: Hank Holland’s death, her father’s vice grip and buried racism, her mother’s socialite naggings.
“I worked for the Minneapolis Tribune for three years. No, the paper is not hell-just a stone wall drag. … The Trib doesn’t permit its reporters time, money, freedom or space and so we continue to crank out schlock. The horror stories are endless-every reporter has dozens.”
As for objectivity: “I don’t believe in the stuff myself-I’ve seen the truth murdered too many times in the name of objectivity-but I’m open to the argument that what we really need is a better definition of objectivity.”And: “to look around the newsroom is to see living tragedy in terms of wasted talent” and “the Channels of Communication are silted up with the corpses of stories that never got covered and ideas that were never pursued.
Some reporters quit and others quit trying.” Some reporters “point to letters attacking us as communists and letters attacking us as Birchers and claim they must be doing something right. On any given controversy, they print what A said and then what B said and think they’ve produced an adequate piece of journalism.”
Tribune staffers would talk about the article for months. Editors issued an internal response. In Tribune Staff Memo No. 77, Wally Allen laid out his feelings: “If objectivity means dull writing, failure to show what an event really means, destruction of color and humanity, then I’m against it. If it means a retreat into the past, a new emphasis on trivia, timidity in reporting on social issues, I’m against it.”
The division of duties at The Texas Observer quickly took shape and Northcott and Ivins-both in their twenties, both on the same political wavelength-easily accepted their titles. Some people in Austin said quietly that Dugger had settled on the co-editor format because he was worried whether one woman could do the job. Northcott was a good reporter and writer; Ivins was a funnier writer and could clearly drink with many different people, which might not have been Northcott’s strong suit- especially in the hallways of the pink-granite capitol, with its miles of wood and swinging-dick legislators yodeling about all the women they had picked up the night before in Austin.
Her first piece in the Observer appeared at almost the same time as her cluster-fuck attack on the Tribune in the Twin Citian. In a direct nod to North Toward Home, Willie Morris’s epistle on his process of self-discovery and riding the lines connecting the South and the North, she decided to call her piece “South Toward Home”:
“Going back to Texas? Ivins, you’re out of your goddamn mind.” And they told me again all the things that make Minnesota a better place to live. The schools are better, the health care is better, the mental institutions more humane, the prisons more enlightened, and the courts more just. And also, Minnesota has bars.And Minnesota’s newspapers are superior and its politicians are progressive and its climate no lousier and its laws more sane. And its racism is thin-blooded and polite. I can’t help it. I love the state of Texas. It’s a harmless perversion.
She gleefully talked about visiting her brother at UT-Austin two years earlier, getting drunk at his fraternity, and having to endure a fraternity brother groping her breast. She condemned the culture of violence in the state and the crazed juxtaposition with the surface politeness, and suggested that things were just more interesting in Texas because the evil deeds and people were easily on parade. “Down here the baddies wear black hats and we can loathe them with a cheerful conscience. … Hatred is hardly a thing to take pride in, but I believe there is a difference between the anger of bitterness and despair and the anger of righteousness. The latter, when not wholly lacking in humor, is a just and cleansing thing.”
And she said that the liberal wing of things was prone to infighting, afflicted by group depression, bad drinking, and the sanctimonious game of I’m-more-radical-than-thou. With her forum-and her willingness to write about Texas politicians in a funnier, more caustic and unfiltered way than anyone else had ever done-she would actually become a grounding focal point for the liberal movement in the city and the state.