Constitutional Fortitude

Molly Ivins was an unabashed patriot, and it drove right-wingers nuts. Conservatives somehow got it fixed in their brains that patriotism meant being in lockstep with their ideology, that dissent was treason. Molly made a career of reminding them otherwise, always careful to point out how cute they were when they acted like fools. Never one to be mean-spirited, she gave right-wingers the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging that their behavior was probably an act, not a character flaw, cynical perhaps, but not as bad as, say, neurosyphilis.

Like a kindly, overeducated maiden aunt, Molly reminded the misguided—not to mention the cynical and greedy—that what the Founding Fathers had thought necessary to spell out in black and white in our Constitution was fairly basic stuff. Not by accident had the first 10 amendments come to be called the Bill of Rights. As she got older, she worried especially about the First Amendment, which she believed was under attack not just from the right wing, but from corporate America. Except for a handful of small, independent newspapers like the Observer, the media have mostly been swallowed up by bottom-line corporations and faceless conglomerates. Left unchecked, the trend could mean the end not only of a free press, but of writers like Molly. I don’t think it will come to that, but Molly believed the First Amendment was too important to leave to chance.

She had a covenant with her readers, addressing them as “beloved,” a habit I think she picked up from John Henry Faulk. In words that even John Cornyn could understand, Molly cataloged the many and nefarious ways that these founding precepts were regularly subverted by special interest groups and their bought-and-paid-for drones in the political class. The political class was a mob she knew better than any journalist I’ve ever known.

Molly practiced what she preached. She reminded us to vote and suggested appropriate candidates, in case we forgot what the idiots had been up to lately. She loved America, not just the people or the spirit or the land itself; she loved the connections, the names and places and dates that had become our historical fabric. Nothing was too small to escape her curiosity or elude her passion, including tiny plants, insects, cloud formations, and nutcase organizations that claimed to represent the American heart, but in fact represented a less elegant body part.

Back in the ’70s, when Molly and Kaye Northcott were co-editors of The Texas Observer, our group of friends took regular camping trips to a small ranch on the South San Gabriel River, owned at the time by David and Ann Richards. Late into the evening, seated around a campfire, a bottle of the water-of-life passing from hand to hand, Molly would lecture us on the constitutional underpinnings (or lack thereof) of various laws and government practices, regaling us with the absurdity of overpaid officials too obtuse to realize they were bad jokes. “If his IQ gets any lower,” she said of a congressman from Dallas, “we’ll have to water him twice a day.” In the morning, she would conduct flora and fauna tours for the children—and those of us who acted like children—pointing out marvels of nature that until then we had dismissed as annoying burrs and nasty things that fly up your shorts and sting.

One Fourth of July, as we drank beer around a picnic table, Molly interrupted our serenity by producing a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which she read aloud, from top to bottom. “The United States of America,” she reminded us at the conclusion of her reading, “is still run by its citizens. The government works for us.” It was a straight-on lecture to a group of college-educated writers, politicos, and professional people, and to my amazement, all of us listened to every word, as though the session would conclude with a pop quiz. We needed Molly to remind us how easy it is to take basic freedoms for granted—and she knew we needed it.

The possibilities of America fascinated her. Molly understood that our nation was not a finished product, but an evolving experiment in democracy, that the previously unimaginable might overtake us in a flash. Politics, therefore, required agility. Sometimes it was necessary to back up, and sometimes it was necessary to start over. Admitting mistakes was rule No. 1. Also numbers two through 10. Most important of all, however, we had to look at politics not as merely a duty, but as an entertainment, something to laugh at and have fun with. Laughing came easy for Molly, as it did for those of us who knew her or who paid even scant attention to what she wrote or said.

Molly wasn’t for everyone, thank God. Though she worked for The New York Times for three years, they never got her. Molly’s down-home irreverence and barbed style—references to the “awl bidness,” for example—puzzled and confused her superiors. I think the title of her first book, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? was inspired by her ordeal at the Times. One particularly officious editor changed her description of a guy with “a beer gut that belongs in the Smithsonian” to “a man with a protuberant abdomen.” Exiled from Manhattan to the Times’ Rocky Mountain bureau, Molly kept her sense of humor. “Montana is a meat-and-potatoes state,” she told me after her return to Austin. “I was starved for anything green. When my steak arrived with a tiny sprig of parsley on top, I wolfed the parsley down and left the meat. A waitress looked at me with what I think was pity and said, ‘Goddamn, honey, if I’d known you was going to eat it, I’d of washed it.'”

Without quite realizing it had happened, Molly and some of the rest of us became village elders. We had been around long enough and covered enough grass fires and stabbings and stolen elections that we could pull up a rocking chair and spend our twilights on the front porch. That wasn’t Molly’s style. While writing books and columns and traveling across the country on speaking engagements, she took time to revive a monthly gathering that a quarter of a century ago was known as First Friday—renaming it Last Friday. Even as she battled cancer, she hosted the gathering at her own home, educating a new generation of patriots into the cultural habits and quirky resistance that characterized her own life, teaching them that right-wingers were to be pitied rather than hated.

When I heard last summer that Molly had decided what she really needed was a 10-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, I thought she had gone crazy. She was fighting cancer for the third time and by all rights should have been home in bed, if not the hospital. Reflecting on it later, I realized that this final grand adventure was emblematic of Molly’s whole life. Another dare, another risk, another confrontation with fate, screw the bloodless cowards who can’t appreciate the fullness of life. I heard that her raft got swamped and she almost drowned. Maybe that was her plan. It would have been a great American ending, not that Molly needed one.

Gary Cartwright is a senior editor at Texas Monthly.

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Published at 12:00 am CST