"The Only Woman in the Room"
Molly Ivins was the most popular liberal commentator of the last 25 years. Bill Minutaglio, author of a new biography of the tangy Texan, on why her voice is needed now more than ever.
There was Morley Safer, in a scrum of old hardball Texas liberals and graying hippies, and hanging out at his late friend Molly Ivins's favorite bar in Austin. With pitchers of Shiner everywhere, Safer was engulfed by dozens of folks wondering what the hell the woman who once had millions of faithful readers would say about health care, Afghanistan, and, yes, Rush Limbaugh’s attempt to own a piece of the Texas Blood Sport, otherwise known as professional football.
Safer, in town to donate his papers to the University of Texas, decided to drop by the book launch for my new biography of the ferociously mercurial and troubled Ivins.
Amid the weathered longhairs, musicians, underground cartoonists and civil liberties lawyers who once formed Austin's counterculture—the people Ivins called “freedom fighters”—Safer seemed merrily caught up in the nostalgia.
“Every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war,” wrote Ivins. “Raise hell.”
"She was one of the funniest and (most) thoughtful women I've ever met," Safer told a reporter from The Daily Texan. "She was a great reporter, and we were good friends."
Close to three years after her death, he's not alone in missing Ivins.
Nose around the Internet and you'll find plenty of other people still wishing she was writing—and wondering what Ivins, if she hadn't succumbed almost three years ago to cancer and a lifetime of wild personal rides, would have to say about the discourse in the twilight of 2009.
They miss the Texas cornpone flavored with a Tabasco sting, the unabashed defrocking she subjected the potentates to when they stole the stage. Maybe we need Molly—frequently described as “the only woman in the room”—more than ever before.
Her domineering father was the president of Tenneco and pals with men like Sen. John Tower, she grew up with George W. Bush, she was engaged to the son of a diplomat who did the CIA’s bidding. But after years of going to war with her controlling old man, devouring seditious issues of the muckraking Texas Observer, and furtively meeting the bravest Texas progressives, she eventually decided to raise a middle finger to all of her gilded upbringing.
It took a few years and some intense trip wires—the violent death of that fiance, her love affair with a ballsy activist, her knocking Bush's gun-toting political godfather to his knees one night in a Texas bar, her telling her bosses at The New York Times to shove it—but she finally found her calling as the most popular liberal political commentator in the last 25 years.
The fact that she did it in the Lone Star State, amid the misogynistic and Jack Daniels-fueled kingmakers, was rather startling to say the least. She fought sexual gropings by famous drunk politicos, three bouts of cancer, her own rampaging alcoholism—and plenty of death threats.
Through it all, Ivins kept the home fires burning for wandering progressives, liberal Israelites, who felt marginalized since the dawn of The Age of Reagan.
Her archives are filled with thousands of letters from readers in small towns in decidedly “red” states–saying they viewed her as a lifeline. They write to Ivins as if they were “fellow travelers” sharing some secret lifestyle. The letters often begin with a confessional tone in this vein: “Dear Molly, I am writing to you because you are the only one who can understand me . . . I am a liberal in a corner of the American heartland . . . in a place where I am afraid to be myself. When I read you . . . I feel at peace with my beliefs.”
So, what would Molly Ivins say to those millions of readers today, including the ones beginning to think there has been some bait-and-switch at work with Obama?
That Obama is lingering with Bush-ian wars and tactics that many liberals expected him to abandon? That Obama has been going down to the metaphorical crossroads once too often and making compromises with Old Scratch? The answer, no doubt, is that she would be saying the same thing she maintained in the very last words she would ever write: “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.”
Divorced from how you feel about her politics, most students of her work knew that she had perfected a magic act when it came to that public discourse; she talked about politics without the dour aura of either Emma Goldman or Charles Krauthammer. Nor did she scream with the raging acidity of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck and their counterparts on the left. She chortled that Dubya was affable but a policy buffoon; she actually liked him personally, but hated his politics. And she spent years, and made a mint, working Bush over like his political career was one big speed bag. It was, as she sometimes told me and other folks in Austin, almost too easy.
Today, it might be a bit harder. She liked Obama and she thought he was far smarter than Bush. She’d maybe have to tap the piñata a bit more lightly in order to say what she wanted to say about Obama, about any sense of failed promises. But she would do it, and do it her way.
She would do it because she didn’t believe that a democracy was served very well by the vitriol, by the poison, by the hatred snaking through the discourse.
She would, perhaps, follow some more of the advice she offered in her very last column: “Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous.”
Bill Minutaglio is co-author, with W. Michael Smith, of Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, released this week by PublicAffairs. He is a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of several books, including George W. Bush & The Bush Family Dynasty and The President’s Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales.