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Molly Ivins, from “Texas Liberals Ought to Come in Tablet Form,” You Got To Dance With Them What Brung You sportsmanlike to go rooting through a reporter’s decades-old work. It’s interesting nevertheless to read Ivins’ current book against an unscientific and quite possibly unfair sampling of those seventies Observers. There is a column in You Got To Dance about the Observer \(a big favorite in in it Ivins recalls her days here as “a happy, golden time, full of sunshine and laughter and beer,” days of traveling the state and meeting the two liberals in each town and stealing pencils from the governor’s office. She mentions slight variations in the magazine under different editors, but you get the sense that it has struggled along more or less unchanged from 1954 until the present. In the seventies, though, the content of the magazine had more of a political-insider flavor to it than it does now; there were more articles about Texas politicians, and greater familiarity with state government was assumed of the reader; it was taken for granted that jostlings for power within the Legislature were important. This is not to say that the Observer covered only state electoral politics, but that the kind of interest the presumed reader took in state electoral politics was different then as if the Legislature were a sporting event, and that reader was eager for the play-by-play. Ivins therefore wrote a number of long, gossipy, plain-speaking pieces \(not entirely humorless, but not whoop-it-up hauteTexan tion of whether Price Daniel, Jr., would replace Gus Mutscher as Speaker of the House in 1973: “Rayford Price pulled off a brilliant stroke: he made a deal with the Republicans and got ten votes right there. The Republicans got a good deal, too. But Daniel wouldn’t deal, see? Then the liberals got kinky. Hale would keep Heatly and they all hated Heatly and for heaven’s sake how could the old Dirty Thirty vote to keep Heatly, even if only for the interim? Damn fool purists, muttered Daniel’s people.” These days, as a columnist for a national audience, Ivins naturally tends instead toward the brief and the broad. \(“People have devoted long and solemn thumb-suckers to the new leadership,” she wrote of the Republican Congress elected in 1994, “analyzed it, psychoanalyzed it, and worked it by fractions. Ignoring, of course, the real story, which is not the new leadership here but the new followership…. Boy, are these people followers. Lock step, in line, march in unison, chant in unison, don’t think, sition from Texas reporter of the early 1970s to national columnist, mid 1990s, Ivins went from being an informed source on state politics for the benefit of people who cared about it, to an explainer of politics, and at times of Texas, to an audience teetering on the line between interest and disgust in its elected officials. The ideas behind her recent columns are straightforward: she singles out campaign finance as the scourge of present-day American politics, and insists that changing the system is the most urgent task before us. Otherwise the book does not attempt to deliver up any profound message beyond those of the individual columns, in which Ivins criticizes fundamentalism and welfare reform and right-wing weirdos, or praises people she’s admired, or visits the Mall of America, or waxes rhapsodic about the looniness of right-wing weirdos. For all the diversity of the book’s seventy-some columns, though, there’s an approach common to many of them. Time and time again, Ivins holds up some current piece of political rhetoric \(usually some order to deflate it. She punctures various buffoonish assertions by Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich’s decline-of-American-civilization version of history, the Republican claim that large numbers of parents were coaching their kids to fake disabilities in order to get SSI benefits, Dole’s claim to superior character, Clinton’s family values platform, Phil Gramm labelling himself “blue collar”… and so on. Sportscasting has been replaced by spin analysis. Of course it’s natural for a columnist to talk back to a politician, whereas a reporter would talk about what the politician is doing. But Ivins’ rhetorical focus also seems to reflect how politics is conducted in the mid-nineties through television campaigns, through anecdotes that spread like catchy jingles and get turned into bad laws. Gingrich’s slogans beg for someone like Ivins to beat them back; at the same time dissent, these days, seems a lot like talking back to the TV. \(Which takes us back to Ivins’ conviction that publicly-financed elections are the nation’s only hope, since the more public participation in government boils down to relatively uninterested TV-watching every other November, the more candidates are forced to display themselves on TV and raise obscene Over the past thirty years populism has 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 13, 1998