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Oh, beloveds, it’s time to meet the Scourge of the Lege
By Dennis Holder |

FLYING WEST OVER the Appalachians in February 1982, Molly Ivins couldn’t help thinking about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And remembering the murdered president led her to wonder if she shouldn’t turn around at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and head back to New York City. She still could return to her job at The New York Times or craft articles for Esquire or The Atlantic. A writer with her credentials is never out of work. She didn’t have to go back to Texas and write about fools and buffoons and gothic Austin politics for the Dallas Times Herald.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been her president. He had thrilled her, inspired her, filled her with hope. He had taught her to trust in the basic goodness of humankind and to believe that all things are possible, even peace, justice, equality. And Dallas killed him. Dallas stood with a cheap Italian rifle in the window of a faceless downtown building. Dallas lined that shock of wavy hair up in the sights. Dallas pulled the trigger and blew away the only president in her lifetime who really stood for anything. In the same instant, Dallas pulled the trigger on Molly Ivins’ youth and innocence and some of her joy.

She knew it wasn’t rational to blame a whole city for the deeds of a single, brooding madman. She had grown up in Houston and she was as familiar as anyone with the dimensions of the Texas personality, the diversity of the people. But she couldn’t shake the feeling, shared by a great many other Americans, that the assassination could not have occurred anywhere else, that the ugly ads and nasty rhetoric that welcomed Kennedy on that tragic day were as much a part of the murder as the twitch of a trigger finger and the report of a rifle. “I came here fully prepared to hate Dallas,” is the way she recalls it. “Dallas was, in my mind, a sort of fearsome place.”

She didn’t turn back, perhaps because she knew that her feeling wasn’t reasonable, perhaps because that way lay cynicism and bitterness. Molly Ivins would not become cynical or bitter. Her president would not have wanted it.

So she went to work for her old buddy Gaylord Shaw, the assistant managing editor who had persuaded her to tackle political commentary for the Times Herald. Reining in the anger, she presented herself as a lusty, rollicking, slightly bawdy political critic in awe of nothing and nobody, whether black, white or peppermint-striped. She determined to smite the asses with the jawbone of a Philistine. A fighting liberal she would be. But instead of clawing, she would tickle them to death.

In the three years since her column first appeared, her easy Texas storyteller style and gentle but piercing humor have made Molly Ivins perhaps the most talked-about local journalist since the heyday of Paul Crume at The Dallas Morning News. Is there anyone in town now who does not think of A. Starke Taylor as His Bubbaship? Is there anyone who doesn’t know that The Gipper is President Ronald Reagan and the Gibber is Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis? Ivins even has managed to make the state Legislature- the Lege, that is-seem more antic than appalling.

Sometimes, Ivins’ needling brings out the best in her victims. Witness the Starke Taylor bumper stickers, “Bubba Taylor is my man.” Sometimes it infuriates them. Get Ivins to talk about the time she stood for five minutes with her nose in Jim Mattox’s ear while the angry Texas Attorney General steadfastly pretended she wasn’t there at all. Like most Ivins anecdotes, it’s a pointed story and very funny.

“As many people as there are out there who violently disagree with almost everything I say, I can’t imagine many readers would listen if I didn’t make them laugh occasionally,” says Ivins. “Besides, almost everything about Dallas and Texas politics strikes me as quite droll. The only way you can possibly react is to laugh, cry or throw up. For me, it’s easiest to laugh.”

Laugh, cry or throw up. If that comment suggests a certain ambivalence, it probably reveals more about Molly Ivins than she ever intended that it should. Tom Wicker, a distinguished New York Times columnist who helped recruit Ivins for his newspaper, has observed that nearly all Southerners who take up writing exhibit strong love-hate feelings about the region of their raising. Despite their cynicism, they harbor a steel-tough loyalty and abiding sense of regional identity virtually unknown in other quadrants of America. Whether Wicker’s observation holds up as a generalization is debatable, but it certainly seems to fit Ivins.

Molly Ivins is a walking contradiction, a paradox in search of a dilemma. To know her for more than a few minutes is to discover all sorts of schismatic glitches in the plaster of her facade. There’s the anger and the humor, the pathos and the bathos. There’s the love of the outrageous and the genuine desire to be liked. There’s the cocky self-confidence and the timid insecurity. There is, in fact, a rather long catalog of opposites. But the one most immediately evident is the dichotomy of feelings about Texas.

“Molly is hard to figure out,” says Eden Lipson, a New York Times Book Review editor who counts Ivins among her best friends. “She will tell all sorts of stories making Texans out as the basest possible collection of fools. Then she’ll invite you to her house and shamelessly serve her favorite recipe for jalapeno cornbread baked in a pan shaped like Texas. She won’t admit it, but she’s a hopeless Texas chauvinist.”

Gaylord Shaw noted the same trait when he met Ivins in Denver. As the only two out-of-state reporters-Ivins covered nine states for The New York Times and Shaw had the same assignment for the Los Angeles Times-they formed a foreign correspondents’ association and often spent off-duty hours drinking and talking. “Molly would alternate between bad-mouthing Texas and bragging about it, but it seemed like Texas always dominated the conversation,” recalls Shaw, who now publishes business magazines in Charlotte, North Carolina. “As an Oklahoma boy, I finally got tired of hearing about it, so I challenged her to a chili cookoff. She doesn’t know a thing about making chili. She puts in old tennis balls and rocks. It’s horrible stuff. Naturally, I won the cookoff both years we had it. But I never could get her to admit that Texas chili was not the best.”

In her writing, the Ivins contradictions can be confusing. The folksy style, which sometimes seems only semiliterate, occasionally clashes with the classical and literary references she likes to sprinkle in. The courthouse-porch idiom does not always complement the New York-liberal ideas. Certainly, Ivins’ writing vernacular enlivens information and opinions that otherwise might be needlessly abrasive or terminally dull. However, she sometimes seems to write down to readers, as if she considers them rubes unable to grasp a point soberly advanced in standard English. Often, she treads dangerously close to parody.

Tom Cross, a construction worker who reads voraciously, contends that Ivins mocks raging liberals in the same way that Times Herald drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs pokes fun at macho rednecks. Cross argues that the two columnists write in similar style and overstate their positions to roughly the same extent. “Besides,” Cross adds, perhaps a touch of parody of his own, “Joe Bob writes about ridiculous movies with gory deaths and naked women. Molly writes about the Legislature. Neither one has much to do with reality.”

Says Ivins, “No one likes to be thought of as a self-parody, but I know a lot of readers equate me with Joe Bob. Some people think I write his column or he writes mine. I guess a lot of people think I am a pseudonymn, that I don’t really exist.”

No matter what else may be said about Molly Ivins, she unquestionably exists. Big-boned and nearly six feet tall-“larger than any male editor I ever worked for,” she says-she is a presence to be reckoned with. Her voice, despite the gliding vowels and pastel tones grown only in Texas, is confident and strong, sometimes overwhelming. Her laugh is an infectious bray that can set a roomful of people hee-hawing merrily even if they don’t quite get the punch line. And her humor is usually generous, rarely scathing. If a story has a butt, most often it’s Molly Ivins.

She’ll tell you she once took a job in Minnesota to be near the ocean. She’ll admit to being the only known living American who counts Butte, Montana, among the nation’s great cities. She loves the Texas Legislature and the Texas Rangers and wonders several times a week whether Eddie Chiles knows less about politics or about baseball. Among her friends are well-known journalists, writers and politicos and a little old lady called Dirtymouth Jeannie. And of course, there’s her purebred Texas Black Hound, which looks suspiciously like a mutt and answers happily to a four-letter moniker starting with an S.

However, Molly Ivins won’t tell you much of substance about herself. It’s another of her paradoxes-she delights in being a public figure but zealously protects her privacy. An editor, she says, once forced her to ask about the color of former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s curtains. Since then, she has hated personal questions. Ask for a biography, and you’ll get only the sketchiest information.

Molly Ivins was born 40 years ago in Monterey, California. (“Aha!” cries Joe Bob. “That explains everything.”) But her father, who claimed to be the oldest lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Coast Guard while he was stationed out west after World War II, moved his family to Houston when Molly was barely 3. No matter where she has lived later in life, she’s been a spun-in-the-grease Texan ever since.

Growing up in Houston, she was what some people call precocious and others term difficult. At predominantly white Sidney B. Lanier Junior High School (“named for one of the worst poets in the history of literature,” Ivins says), teachers often lost patience with the bright youngster and her instinct for the impertinent. Ivins recalls exchanges something like this:

“Child, if you want a drink of water, you must get it from the ’White Only’ fountain.”

“Why is that, ma’am? Does the water in the blacks’ fountain come from a different place?”

“No, dear. The black fountain is dirty.”

“Well, ma’am. I just don’t see how that could be. Hardly anyone uses the black fountain, but white kids slobber in the other one all day long.”

At Smith College, which lists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem next to Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush on its roster of distinguished former students, Ivins scoffed at foreign studies programs but, nevertheless, put in a year at the Institute of Political Science in Paris. She received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1966 and then spent a year at Columbia University in New York City, earning a master’s in journalism.

Summers during college, Ivins worked at the Houston Chronicle. She did a stint on the information desk, one in the complaint department and one on the bride’s report. After her coverage awarded one groom a BO degree and married a bride off to her daddy, she concluded that “there is no more dangerous animal than the mother of a bride,” and that “my career in the women’s department wasn’t going anywhere.”

The next summer, she says, she switched to the newsroom and discovered she had a natural advantage over other women reporters of that time. “Editors generally didn’t give the good assignments to female reporters. But I found I could get them because of my size. Nobody could look at me and say, ’Oh, that poor little thing. We can’t send her out to cover a riot.’ “

When she earned her master’s at Columbia, Ivins received job offers from several newspapers. She accepted one at the Minneapolis Tribune, which in 1967 was often mentioned among the 10 best dailies in the United States. According to Ivins, she decided on the Tribune because she was under the impression that Minnesota was the next state over from Washington and Oregon and she would be able to spend long weekends at the beach. “Geography was never one of my strong subjects.”

Minneapolis, she found, was a “clean, quiet, well-lighted city, a terrible place to work for a newspaper. It was a big story when a minor diplomat was caught shoplifting $3.90 worth of wild rice from a grocery store.” Still, Ivins won a reputation as a solid reporter and spritely writer in three years with the Tribune. On a beat called “Movements for Social Change,” she covered “militant blacks, angry Indians, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers.”

When she worked the police beat, the Minneapolis Mice Department named its mascot after her. The mascot was a pig.

In 1970, Ivins accepted a $125-a-week job as co-editor of the Texas Observer, a biweekly liberal tabloid published in Austin. At the time, she says, she was fed up with daily newspapers and their hidebound who-what-when-where-why-how reporting. She wanted to speak her mind and develop her writer’s muscles. Her plan was to give up establishment journalism forever.

Although she had never before covered what she calls “indoor politics,” Ivins’ principal assignment at the Observer was the Texas House of Representatives. At first, she was appalled by the absence of serious deliberation, by the palpable silliness, by the boys’ school atmosphere and juvenile naughtiness.

“The first time I ever set foot in the Texas House, I heard one legislator talking to another: ’Hey, boy, you shoulda seen what I found last night. She don’t talk neither.’ I had my butt patted, my cheeks pinched. I had more parts of my anatomy touched than I ever imagined. It wasn’t what I expected from a legislative body, and it made me angry. But my capacity for anger is limited. My capacity for laughter is limitless. Eventually, I started seeing the Legislature and the political process as enormously funny. 1 wish I could still feel outrage, but I guess amusement is the next best thing.”

According to Kaye Northcott, an Austin writer who was Observer editor during the six years Ivins was co-editor, the paper of that period was funnier than at any time before or since. “I was so disgusted by Texas politicians that I didn’t want to have anything to do with them,” Northcott says. “But Molly just waded in and dealt with them and then came back and wrote hilarious stories about them. We used to get criticism from readers that we weren’t serious enough. Some people felt that if we made a joke out of something, we couldn’t be making a serious point. But with Molly, humor was a tremendous weapon. She could spear anybody with a joke.”

While at the Observer, Ivins free-lanced for The Atlantic, The Nation, the Washington Post and other prominent journals. Eventually, she became known among the national media as the person you call when you need someone to write funny about Texas politics. Tom Wicker, a long-time Texas Observer subscriber, spotted Ivins’ work and persuaded The New York Times brass to offer her a job. Several times, Ivins says, she turned down the nation’s leading newspaper. Finally, in 1976, she accepted an offer because “I decided I had reached a point in my life where I needed to make some money.”

After a year of writing first about city hall and then about state government in Albany, Ivins went to Denver to race around the mountains in a Chevrolet Blazer, looking for stories for the Times. A piece about Butte, Montana, and Dirtymouth Jeannie is the one she calls her favorite. In 1980, she went back to New York, where she wrote about city politics and neighborhoods. She left the Times for the Dallas Times Herald early in 1982.

High on the list of contradictions that are the essence of Molly Ivins are her feelings about The New York Times, the Dallas Times Herald and daily journalism in general. On each subject, she vacillates wildly, voicing giddy enthusiasm with one breath and almost venemous contempt with the next. Although she re-entered the newspaper establishment when she traded her rickety Texas Observer typewriter for a word processor at the Times, she clearly is not comfortable with journalism as big business.

About The New York Times, she says, “I am very glad to have worked there. I consider the staff of the Times the finest group of practicing journalists in America.” Then she adds, “I also consider the Times a miserable place to work. Young journalists who should be stars elsewhere are out in Long Island covering sewers for the Times. They wind up stabbing each other in the back and kissing – to get ahead. And management encourages it. It is what The New York Times and the Washing-ton Post call creative tension. The stupidity of newspaper editors is appalling.”

The Times Herald, she believes, is vital to Dallas if only because it serves as an antidote to the “pernicious political poison the Morning News has been mainlining into the bloodstream of this city for years.” She also gives the paper high marks for granting her free rein to write anything she pleases so long as it is not obscene. “I am edited very lightly at this paper. It takes courage for an editor in this city to give someone like me that much latitude.”

On the other hand, she lights into those same editors for being indecisive and unfair. The Times Herald, she says, has no consistent management style and few decipherable policies. Its editorial page is more often wishy-washy than courageous. It ignores social issues and minorities. If her job were not in a category exempt from union representation, she says, she would work for a Newspaper Guild chapter to help reporters confront their editors’ caprice. Neither Dallas daily, she adds, deserves a B for quality. “They are both C+.”

About journalism in general, the Ivins paradox is more complex. Her basic quarrel is with the gospel of objectivity preached by the gurus of the business. “How many times have we printed lies, knowing they were lies, just because some jerk said them. It may be fact that somebody said it, but that doesn’t make it true. Objectivity is most often an excuse for intellectual laziness. When we say, “so-and-so said,” we ought to add in brackets that so-and-so is a well-known liar. Objectivity doesn’t exist. Accuracy is a lie if it obscures truth.”

The “pernicious effects of objectivity” is a subject Ivins addresses passionately, one that causes her to drop the quips and anecdotes that pepper most of her conversation. But at some point she draws up and admits, “Once you abandon objectivity, it’s a short slide to outright propaganda. Propaganda, of course, can be lethal to public debate and, eventually, to freedom.”

For Ivins, this is the ultimate professional rock and a hard place, but she avoids being caught. Reporters may be stuck with some muddled version of objectivity, but in her column four times a week, she can say most anything she wants. As she sees it, her role as a columnist is to spot the lies and distortions endemic to politics and then stand up and scream “Bulls—!” Humor is her way of trying to scream it pleasantly.

Still, there is the Ivins ambivalence. “I have mixed feelings about being a public liberal in Dallas. I seem to be a lightning rod for right-wing paranoia. I get an extraordinary amount of hate mail. On even-numbered days, I feel I don’t want to hear it any more. On odd-numbered days, I just say, ’Well screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.’ But all of us, especially Southern women, are trained to want people to like us. The hatred is hard to handle sometimes.”

At least one quandary has worked itself out over the past three years, however. Although she moved her base of operation last year from Dallas to Austin, Ivins says she has resolved her feelings about this city. “To my utter astonishment, I have become quite fond of Dallas. One reason I like it, of course, is that it is a wonderful target. But I have developed a genuine affection for the city. I am even fond of its amazing earnestness. The anger is gone.”

Ivins also says she recently resolved another personal conflict. “Texas women of my generation were not taught to think about success. But I have been successful, and for a long time I believed it was because of my size or because I was lucky. But I have finally been able to admit something that is important to me. I’m damn good.”

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