When Molly Played Kansas

There are a few moments in my life that I will remember forever. A couple that come to mind took place in Austin on the same weekend. Molly Ivins was a part of both. One took place in Liz Carpenter’s bedroom. Ann Richards and I were conned into lying together on Liz’s bed to see the perfect view of the Texas Tower and the state Capitol dome framed by the steam erupting from Liz’s hot tub. If I remember it correctly, it was Molly who took the photo—at least she was in the bedroom adding to the general laughter and ribald comments that rang out as Liz hit buttons on her bed to make it vibrate.

Another was a Molly-led tour of the Texas Capitol. The Legislature was in session, and I was concerned that walking through the building with Molly would be like trespassing through the headquarters of the Marine Corps with Jane Fonda. I needn’t have been concerned. Far from it, there was glad-handing all around, “Hey Molly, how’re yew?” from liberals and troglodytes alike. All we met were very outgoing to their resident scold. She once described her reception by the erstwhile villains, thus:

“So in my early days at the Observer, when I would denounce some sorry sumbitch at the Lege as an egg-suckin’ child molester who ran on all fours and had the brains of an adolescent pissant, I would courageously prepare myself to be horsewhipped at least. All that ever happened was, I’d see the sumbitch in the Capitol the next day; he’d beam, spread his arms, and say, ‘Baby! Yew put a mah name in your paper!'”

Molly also arranged my legislative stand-up debut with Speaker of the House Pete Laney. It was decided that I’d address the Legislature and tell a few jokes in the interest of a mirth diversion from the day’s business. My debut was postponed when we realized the day’s business turned out to be a shouting match over a hate-crime bill. We adjourned to her house for lunch. One lasting and prophetic memory from her that day—nearly 10 years ago, when George W. Bush was still governor: Molly said, “Tuck this name in the back of your mind—Karl Rove. That’s Karl—mitt a ‘K’.”

Most people who speak for a living will tell you that every plaque or award represents a free speech. Some people put them up on their walls. Molly used them as trivets. Molly didn’t rest on her laurels, she ate off of them.

Molly always had one up on her muckracking antecedents like Ida Tarbell and Edna Ferber. They never took a moment to be playful as did Molly, to the extent that any given column was at once an on-target essay and an earthy laugh-out-loud article to be clipped and sent to friends who weren’t able to see her column on a regular basis. She once inscribed a book, “Can you believe God gave me all this material free?” But my absolute favorite Molly Ivins line is: “If God keeps hangin’ around with politicians, it’s gonna hurt his reputation.”

I bring up Ida Tarbell because her doggedness in exposing the strong-arm corporate tactics of Standard Oil over a century ago opened the door to the journalistic snooping in Molly Ivins’ native state of the Awl Bidness.

And what a fertile field. The “awl bidness” begat real estate, banks, elected officials, lobbyists, and yes, Molly’s prime targets of opportunity, our presidential father-and-son team. (It once took me several minutes to explain the meaning of the world “Dubya” to an elderly lady from New York.)

Molly upheld a tradition described by Kathleen Brady in Ida Tarbell, Portrait of a Muckraker.

These writers believed in the ideas of the country at the same time they exposed its hypocrisy. All were from pioneer stock, reared by hard-working parents on the principle of plain living, inspired by American history, and reverential toward Lincoln. They had the American penchant for facts over philosophy, and they not only searched for corruption, they also unmasked power in America and found that that power did not rest with the people. The writers pointed out what needed to be changed, and fully believed in the fundamental rightness of things as they had been when the individual entrepreneur and the farmer were America’s kings.

Sadly, we have one less lovable watchdog amid a shortage of good ones. The ranks, alas, are thinning—Art Buchwald and now Molly Ivins. The thought of slogging through the next two years without either of them is no laughing matter.

One final Molly story. A number of years ago I was hired to speak before the Wichita, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce. Upon my arrival, several people alluded to some vague sort of mishap that had occurred surrounding the appearance of Molly Ivins, their previous speaker, some months earlier. No specifics were given, only that something had happened.

Prior to my performance, I could overhear snippets of conversation along the lines of, “Molly Ivins this, and Molly Ivins that” interspersed with words like “shocking,” “unsuitable,” and “certainly inappropriate for Wichita.” What was it about Molly’s appearance that still had everyone buzzing about it six months later? An over-the-line political opinion, perhaps? A subversive rant? A polemic suggestion that Alf Landon and Robert Dole were the evil twins of the prairie? “What did Molly Ivins say?” I asked the woman seated next to me. “I cannot tell you,” the woman snapped and turned away.

Later, during a reception, the Molly talk continued without any helpful specifics. Finally, I grabbed a couple I had met earlier and begged for an explanation. At this point I was going nuts with curiosity as to what assault had been waged on the tender ears of the Sunflower State by the visitor from Texas. The gentleman suggested we step into the hall, at which point I lost all patience and hollered, “WHAT IN THE HELL DID MOLLY IVINS SAY?” The guy lowered his voice and, looking over his shoulder, said, “Well, when she spoke at the banquet, she said that the three most overrated things in America are Mack trucks, teenage pussy, and the FBI.”

As they say in Austin, that’s ole Molly. I just wish I had asked her if it was the Mack trucks part that offended the folks in Wichita.

Mark Russell is a Washington political humorist.

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Published at 12:00 am CST