Exclusively Online | Spring 2019 Issue

“A Lighter Look”

Rick Meyer's regularly appearing column looks at the lighter side of American politics. This month: A reflection on the great Molly Ivins

By Richard E. Meyer

Molly Ivins would be appalled. And grateful.

She believed, with Mark Twain, that “against the assault of humor, nothing can stand.” She used her wit like a weapon, and the follies that have come to infect our politics would be a welcome target.

For more than 25 years, Molly was the liveliest col­umnist in the southwest, maybe the country. At her peak, she wrote for nearly 400 newspapers. She was a con­noisseur of foolishness. And politics supplied her with plenty of material. She wrote about politicians twice a week, sometimes more often, and she never had to resort to fiction.

Today, our politics are so outrageous that not even Samuel Clemens could dream them up. For Molly, they would be an endless feast.

She interned at the Houston Chronicle, then covered police for the Minneapolis Tribune. In 1970, The Texas Observer hired her to be a politics reporter and co-editor. She covered the legislature in Austin with biting humor and won national attention with op-eds in the Washington Post and New York Times. In an effort to brighten its writing, the Times hired her. In 1977, she became its Rocky Mountain bureau chief – the chief, she said, because she was the only person in the bureau. From Denver, she covered nine western states.

“But it backfired,” the Texas Monthly said. “The Times did not want Molly to be Molly; they expected Molly to become, well, the Times. The copy desk regularly translated Ivinisms to Timesisms – converting ‘beer gut’ to ‘protuberant abdomen,’ for example – and the paper’s ex­ecutives didn’t go for her laid-back Austin look. After her probationary period ended, Ivins was criticized not for her reporting, but for dressing badly, laughing too loudly and walking around the newsroom in her bare feet.”

When she tried to sneak a risqué joke into her copy, she was brought back to Manhattan and busted to covering city hall. The Dallas Times Herald offered her a column and said she could write anything she wanted, so Molly returned to Texas, this time to Dallas. Before long, her satire offended Dallas officials, and the Times Herald sent her to Austin. Once again, she was covering the Texas legislature. In 1991, the Times Herald folded.

She was rescued by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and wrote for it until 2001. By then, Molly was being syndicated. As the number of newspapers that bought her columns climbed past 350, she wrote for magazines as well, including Harpers, The Atlantic, Esquire, The Nation, The Progressive and Mother Jones.

Molly developed an avid national following. She was unabashedly liberal. She appeared on TV and radio and lectured across the country. Her first book, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? made the Times bestseller list, followed by Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.

A 6-foot strawberry blonde with a big smile, she spoke pure Texan, in which “hell” had two syllables and rhymed with the pellets of ice that fall from the sky. Her desire, she said, was to have fun. “Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, be­loveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it,” she said. “Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the ‘fraidy cats. Rejoice in all the oddities that free­dom can produce.”

So have some fun. Consider how – and to whom – Molly’s words might apply today:

He was so narrow-minded he could see through a keyhole with both eyes.”

“If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”

 About:

  • Bill Clinton: “He’s weaker than bus-station chili. . . .
  • Dan Quayle: “If you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee, it would fly backwards.”
  • Ross Perot: “All hawk and no spit.”
  • A Pat Buchanan speech: “It probably sounded better in the original German.”      

About:

  • Economics: “We’ve had trickle-down economics in the country for ten years now, and most of us aren’t even damp yet.”        
  • Gun control: “I am not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. . . . Plus, knives don’t ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.”

Her advice to politicians: “The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.”

In 1999, Molly began treatment for cancer. “I have been on blind dates better than that,” she said. She died in 2007. She was 62. To those who would take up her mantle, she left these words:

“The best way to get the sons of bitches is to make people laugh at them. . . . Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel – it’s vulgar.”

Finally, now as then, “Any nation that can survive what we have lately in the way of government is on the high road to permanent glory.”

 

Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer is the senior editor of Blueprint. He has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times.

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