Molly was an American original, one of those authentic, powerful voices that come from deep within the better side of this country’s soul. Her voice will continue to echo, as do the voices of other great journalists, from William Lloyd Garrison to I.F. Stone, long after their owners are gone. To construct Molly’s equivalent, one would have to add to the passion for justice of those writers the qualities of Finley Peter Dunne, whose skewering of the high and mighty of a hundred years ago, so often quoted since, was always done with gentle humor.
I first got to know Molly when we were both regular speakers at the wonderful annual World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She usually came only every other year, and I made sure those were the years that I came. I have to confess, though, that I always had mixed feelings about being put on a panel with her. On the one hand, it was thrilling, because the room would always be packed with people sitting on the window ledges and in the aisles and straining on tiptoe to peer in the doors. On the other, I always knew that no matter how long and hard I or any of the other speakers prepared, we would never be as succinct, as trenchant, and as hilarious as Molly.
I so admired not just her famous wit, but the warmth and gentleness that came through when she wrote about flawed people whom she still liked, like Henry Cisneros. Or when she talked about such people. The last time I saw her, we were talking about Christopher Hitchens and his odd embrace of the Iraq war, and she said, “I told him: I can’t go with you there. No way. But we’ll still be friends.”
I think everyone felt that her voice belonged in whatever was the publication they loved best, and for years I hoped it would be in Mother Jones, with which I’ve been associated since it began. Finally, in 1990, Doug Foster, then editor of the magazine, succeeded where many of us had failed, and got Molly to begin doing a regular column for MJ under the heading of “Impolitic.” Later, even after she stopped doing the column, she kept on writing occasional pieces for the magazine for many years.
In these articles, as so often in her syndicated newspaper column, the literary conceit was that she was almost a foreign correspondent, explaining that exotic place, Texas, to the United States. But of course she was explaining the United States to itself, because although the Bushes were from Texas, the rest of us had elected them (or maybe didn’t, but that’s another story …).
There were other powerful Texans, like Dick Armey and Phil Gramm, who needed to be explained to bewildered Mother Jones readers, but the most important, of course, was the man still sitting in the White House. “I have known George W. Bush slightly since we were both in high school,” Molly wrote in MJ a few years ago, “and I studied him closely as governor. He is neither mean nor stupid. What we have here is a man shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture, combined with huge blinkers of class. The three Texas themes are religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. They all play well politically …”
Then she went on to analyze Bush in terms of the narrow, privileged part of Midland, where he had partly grown up. She quoted a Texas ACLU board member who was asked if there had been any problems with gay-bashing in Midland. “‘Oh, hell, honey,’ she drawled, ‘there’s not a gay in Midland who will come out of the closet for fear people will think they’re Democrats.'”
Molly’s legendary ability to laugh and to make others laugh was not just a skill she happened to have. She believed in it; it was part of her stance toward the world. She knew that nobody who battles against war and injustice, discrimination and poverty, can do so for a lifetime—and certainly can’t expect to get others to come on board—without laughter, without enjoying the very fight itself. Nothing can serve as a better epitaph for her than this ending to one of her Mother Jones columns; she was writing about someone else, but I think she was also writing about herself:
“On the occasion of the bicentennial of the Constitution, the ACLU was fixin’ to lay some heavy lifetime freedom-fighter awards on various citizens and one of ’em was Joe Rauh, the lawyer who defended so many folks during the McCarthy Era and the civil rights movement (note that the rightness of those stands is always easier to see in retrospect). Raugh was sick in the hospital at the time and asked a friend of his to go down and collect the award for him. His friend went to see him in the hospital and said, ‘Joe, what you want me to tell these folks?’
“So there was Rauh lyin’ there sick as a dog, thinking back on all those bad, ugly, angry times—the destroyed careers, the wrecked lives—and he said, ‘Tell ’em how much fun it was. Tell ’em how much fun it was.’
“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 … 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.”
Adam Hochschild was a co-founder of Mother Jones. He has written for numerous newspapers and magazines and authored several books.