Some years back, for reasons too boring to get into here, Molly Ivins and I wound up at the same Austin luncheon, one of those big deals at the Driskill Hotel filled with the powerful and the semi-powerful, and with the pomposity hanging thicker in the air than cigar smoke. I won’t repeat the name of the group here, but Molly and I were to serve as panelists before them.
As I started to enter the banquet room, one of the attendees took me aside and, in all sincerity and with great concern, said, “Dan, you’re not gonna appear on the same panel with Molly Ivins, are you?” I must have looked puzzled because he explained how Molly was, in this gentleman’s view, some kind of radical who could only drag me into trouble by sitting beside her in such a public forum.
A bit put off, but wanting to be polite, I mumbled my thanks to the gentleman for his concern and found my seat on the panel, next to Molly. I smiled at her in greeting; she just leaned over and asked me what I was doing “in a place like this.”
“I could ask the same of you,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “If I stay here and tell these sumbitches what I intend to tell them, and you stay here next to me, you’re gonna be ruined.”
That was pure Molly—happy to confirm the worst and to make you laugh anyway. If God hadn’t given her to us, we would have had to invent her ourselves.
Think what you want of her opinions, the things she approved of and the things she despised, you always knew where Molly stood, and you always knew where she came from. Texas all the way. If you wanted to see her nostrils flare or her neck swell, all you had to do was tell her where to line up or what to think or—heaven help you—tell her to shut up. Nobody ever accused Molly Ivins of going along to get along.
That luncheon at the Driskill wasn’t the first time I heard the word “radical” used to describe Molly, in Texas and elsewhere, and it was not to be the last. Maybe one heard that particular word so much because it was one of the few words, in speaking of her, that her detractors could repeat in polite company. Or maybe it was because the traits Molly embodied have become so rare these days that they were easily misidentified. But either way, the radical label got it wrong.
Molly was no radical. Her beliefs were far too chaotic and unpredictable for that, and she bridled at any suggestion that she was doctrinaire. What she was—and mark it well, because we don’t see her like often—was Independent, with a capital “I.”
She was a maverick, in the best and truest meaning of that word. She was just about impossible to herd, and woe be unto the person who might try. In other words, she was Texas to the core. And if it hadn’t been for Molly and those few rare souls like her, an itinerant visitor may have thought that the Texans were all gone, that they had gone the way of the Karankawa Indians. But Molly was the real Texan article, and alongside the humor for which she is so justly remembered, this served her so well in her chosen craft. True to one classic definition of a journalist, she was always ready to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Molly, admittedly, took far more satisfaction from the former. And never in the history of the Fourth Estate has a writer been more fortuitously paired with her subject than was Molly in covering the Texas Legislature. Where else could this connoisseur of the classic line have found such ready-made morsels as the legislator who assured his colleagues they could reduce spending on public workers “through nutrition?”
The last time I saw Molly was at a big benefit for this publication. 2006 was drawing to a close, and Molly knew the end was near for her, too, but she had the courage to continue to live life while she still had it. An impressive crowd had turned out for the gala, and I remarked to Molly that the event had really grown, and the Observer should be proud. In typical Molly fashion, she threw some cold water on that. “I just hope we don’t get too complacent,” was her response.
As long as Molly was around, no one ever could get too complacent, and that may be one of the best things that can be said about a member of the working press. Now that Molly’s gone, we’ll have to guard against complacency for ourselves, and find the laughs where we can.
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather produces and hosts”Dan Rather Reports” for HDNet.