An Excellent Day

On the last weekend of her life, Molly Ivins spent an afternoon creatively trashing the traitorous rats who had abandoned party and principle to vote to re-elect the speaker of the Texas House, then met in the evening with the ladies of her Austin book club, many of whom had smuggled tasty contraband into her hospital room. All things considered, it was an excellent day.

From the moment I met her at a backyard barbecue in Anchorage, Alaska, 20-odd years ago, Molly taught me to savor and cherish the many wonders of life, even the often-hilarious frustrations of being a left-wing Texan. Wherever Molly went, she met people who would love her unto death. Hell, I still love her and will always carry the glow of that incredible smile with me.

Those who compare her with the sad lot of current political columnists miss the point altogether. It is insulting to mention her in the same breath with a house man like George Will or timid “centrist” David Broder, who once was a great reporter, let alone to the execrable Ann Coulter. She was firmly in the great tradition of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and Will Rogers, American originals who saw things clearly and spoke the truth even more clearly. Could there be a better description of Pat Buchanan’s notorious Republican convention speech than Molly’s laconic, “It must have sounded better in the original German”?

It was Molly’s unique ability to combine reporting, commitment, and wit that made her a special writer. Even an eight-year battle with an especially nasty form of breast cancer evoked telling humor. A legendary overworker, she told me that her sickness had had the benefit of making it possible for her to say no to speaking and writing gigs: “If I say, ‘I can’t. I have cancer,'” she said, “they tend to go away.”

But for everybody who knew Molly, the memories are not of her professional excellence, although her hilariously pointed work in The Texas Observer 30 years ago knocked my socks off even before we met.

I can see her strolling briskly across the campus of the University of Colorado, trailed by earnest acolytes waiting for another good ol’ boy story or a chicken-fried epigram. Molly and Roger Ebert have been the superstars of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs for decades. In Boulder, she was approachable royalty.

I remember her sending my son a box of books at his birth, children’s classics that he would read over the years, even if they weren’t exactly your typical baby gifts. I can hear him later remarking on her bilingual skills: “When you see her on TV, she talks like J.R. Ewing, but when she calls, she sounds like a normal person.” (Please forgive his New Jersey chauvinism.) The combination of Houston and Smith College produces wondrous things.

I can remember the splendidly funny dinner in Austin at which I sat back and listened to Molly and the amazing Liz Carpenter tell delightful stories until I was too weak from laughing to have dessert. Or another Austin dinner when a 6-foot-tall woman with no breasts and a gray crewcut was the most magnetic, beautiful presence in a room full of Texas beauties.

On a bush flight to Denali, Molly wondered at the building that served as both saloon and Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room as well as the natty and fashionable climbing attire of a group of Italian mountaineers.

Molly devoured life, whether it was riding in her pickup to Fredericksburg with her poodle (a Texas poodle, not one of those fancy ones) in the back, surrounded by finely chewed tennis balls, or sitting in a barbecue joint with butcher paper on the tables in the Hill Country as she learned that the Pulitzer Prize Board, in a fit of insanity, had taken away what had seemed to be her guaranteed prize and given it instead to Dave Barry, who hadn’t been a finalist. A brief oath about the Dallas Morning News and its then-editor (who was a board member), and it was back to the barbecue and another funny story.

Unlike most columnists, who seem to have long ago chosen between passion and humor and made the wrong choice, Molly was a believer, an American patriot who thought the founding documents assured us of our freedoms. She was also a pragmatic, tough, and skeptical woman who understood that maintaining those freedoms required constant battle, even though that meant being less polite than a Texas lady might ordinarily be. She had no problem being in a minority, which is probably a good thing given recent history. Nor did she mind the chaos and messiness of democracy. In fact, she celebrated it.

In short, the lady enjoyed raising hell, which is exactly what we need in this age of candy-ass acquiescence to the national executive branch’s ever-accelerating power grabs, in this era of fascination by the mass media with the irrelevant and stupid.

She found it impossible to accept cant and humbug. Hearing an English authority on something or other deliver himself of his opinion, Molly purred, “Everything seems to sound better when it’s delivered in an English accent. Especially bullshit.” During Bill Clinton’s second-term battles, he called some prominent columnists, purportedly to seek advice, a flattering kind of call. Molly was not impressed. She reminded him that he was the president and she wasn’t, dropped in some progressive ideas, and went on unimpressed by the implied flattery.

At a long-ago session at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she and I were on a panel with Larry L. King (the real Larry King). We did our little speeches, and a sweet young thing raised her hand. She asked for career advice. Molly responded crisply and compassionately. “My friend on the left spent 10 years of his career as a rock-and-roll writer. My friend on the right resisted turning ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ into a musical. And I left The New York Times to come to a dying newspaper in Texas. What the hell do we know?”

Because of her, Texas can be proud. It produced more than the arrogant cruelties of the Phil Gramms and Dick Armeys, not to mention the Current Occupant. It produced Molly Ivins, by God, and she served to remind every last one of us of the joys of political battle and the absolute necessity of fighting political battles. She introduced me to John Henry Faulk and Ann Richards, told me about Ralph Yarborough and the good side of Lyndon Johnson.

She and I were never what you might call demonstrative people, the kind who share your pain, especially not the kind who share their own. But she spent long evenings listening to my ravings about my then-semi-disastrous love life and my adolescent insights following the realization that bourbon whiskey was killing me. I was honored that she returned that favor after Florence King accused her of plagiarism (it was shattering to her to have missed a couple of attributions, even though she had made all the rest) and her last newspaper employer treated her in the shabby fashion that has sadly become common in our craft. She was a good friend and a wise woman who served her country better than any pompous flag-waver who ever drew breath.

There can be no words better than Molly’s own, from her last column, to sum up her legacy and give the lie to the wingnuts’ absurd claim that her philosophy was based on hatred of the Current Occupant.

“The purpose of this old-fashioned newspaper crusade is not to make George W. Bush look like the dumbest president ever. People have done dumber things. What were they thinking when they bought into the Bay of Pigs fiasco? How dumb was the Egypt-Suez war? How massively stupid was the entire war in Vietnam? Even at that, the challenge with this misbegotten adventure is that WE simply cannot let it continue….

“We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. If you can, go to the peace march in Washington Jan. 27. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘Stop it, now!'”

That’s the furthest thing from hate. Molly Ivins was about freedom and love. And we loved her back.

Richard Aregood is senior vice president of the Marcus Group and former editorial page editor of the Newark Star-Ledger and the Philadelphia Daily News.

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Published at 12:00 am CST