Point Austin: What Molly Wrote
Ivins and her kind
By the time I became an editor of The Texas Observer in the back half of the 1980s, Molly Ivins was already a star. It was not easy getting her byline back into the pages of the magazine that had launched her career. She was writing a column for The Dallas Times Herald three times a week, and it was a grind; she needed all available material to feed the beast. So Editor Geoff Rips and I were surprised one winter day, now 20 years ago, when she offered us a short essay, original and unsolicited. It was about the death of her dog, Shit.
"Shit the Dog finally croaked on December 9 after fourteen-and-a-half years of marplotting through life," the article began. I suspect she offered it first to her editors in Dallas just for the fun of it, knowing that the Observer would be there to print what a family newspaper would not. We were proud to do so.
I wasn't as soft-hearted about dogs then as I am now, so I don't remember judging Molly harshly about giving the poor thing that moniker. Only when I re-read the essay the other day (it can be found in her first collection, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?) did I recall the explanation for it: She and her Observer Co-Editor Kaye Northcott noticed that the young pup would practically trip over the pattern in the linoleum, "so we called her Shitface for a while, and then it got to be Shit for short and then it was too late." Anyway, as Molly explains, the dog turned out to have "a genius for fouling things up."
Two things strike me today about this work of reporting. 1) I cannot vouch for the strict factuality of the account. Did Shit the Dog really once cause gridlock "on the entire Upper West Side" of Manhattan by the misadventures Molly ascribed to her? I concede that in my tenure at the Observer (as in hers) there was no fact-checking department, as such. 2) But what other journalist in America would have found a way to use "marplotting" so beautifully in her lead? Most of us are not only poorly read but mentally lazy. So it took me 20 years to bother to discover that Marplot was a character in a play called The Busy Body, by Susanna Centlivre (1667-1723). Did Molly read The Busy Body in her bookwormish girlhood in Houston? Or was it an artifact of her education at Smith College or at the Institute of Political Science in Paris? I wish I knew. But the point is the word means a dim-witted meddler with a genius for fouling things up. Mot juste, as Molly would say they say in Lubbock.
You can read a lot into Molly's short memorial for Shit. The political world Molly chronicled was full of marplotters. Her method was to regard them the way people regard their poorly behaved dogs. They might be exasperating, embarrassing, even infuriating but they are part of the family. And, in the end, they do provide us with funny stories. Molly always remembered to thank Texas politicians, especially those in the Legislature, for being such entertaining curs. "God love you, guys," she wrote on the acknowledgments page of her first book, "I couldn't have done it without you."
Power and Idiocy
That's the Molly that the world came to know. She became famous because of her determination to study the marplotters, expose their misdeeds, and then laugh. For the most part, the technique was successful and sane. Politics is full of actors who attempt to build themselves up. At her best, Molly could reduce such people, almost literally diminish them into flyspecks, in the course of two or three extremely polite reportorial sentences. Tom DeLay: "He's normally genial, with the air of a small-town car dealer experienced at being professionally affable. ... When DeLay is not angry, he comes across not as a nut but as a man given to ill-advised enthusiasms such as bringing back DDT. Nothing, however, in his manner or conversation would lead you to think he is a natural leader." She went on, in a 1999 profile, to describe his success in the pest-control industry, the Legislature, and then Congress. "His real constituency is the lobbying corps, and the sleazy smell that rises from their vigorous cooperation is another reason for DeLay's vulnerability." (Ahead of the curve on that one.)
That profile is included in her 2004 volume Who Let the Dogs In? Among the many striking portraits of politicians included therein is one of my favorites: a thorough dismemberment of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. She recounts Gingrich saying in 1992 that Woody Allen's affair with Mia Farrow's daughter "fits the Democratic Party platform perfectly." To which Molly responds, "The Democratic Party has never recommended screwing your lover's adopted daughter." In such moments, one realizes that Molly went beyond "speaking truth to power." She came to specialize in speaking truth to idiocy.
As I delved back into Molly's body of work in the days after her death last week, I found myself calculating how old she was when she began to learn to do this so effectively. She started at the Observer in 1970. She would have been 26 then. I remember spending considerable time with the Observer bound volumes when I arrived at the office in 1984, at just that age, and I found Molly's dispatches from the early 1970s to be thrilling, like discovering a weird new literary form. The earliest example of Molly's writing to be reprinted in her books is an explanation of Texas politics she wrote for a magazine called Place in 1972. You can see that she has already found her voice at age 27 or 28. Within two paragraphs she's quoting a Johnny Winter lyric: "They's so much shit in Texas/you bound to step in some." (Sorry for the recurring fecal theme.) Immediately following, she clarifies: "I love the state of Texas, but I regard that as a harmless perversion on my part."
She held that stance through the rest of her writing life. For some, it began to read like shtick, and sometimes it was. Molly liked to say she had never made a smart career move in her life. Not quite right. She made a career out of those two themes above: Texas is repulsive, and I embrace it. That became the Molly Ivins signature. It was her ticket to success. It was also a political statement: I will not respond to adversity by shrinking in fear, hatred, or bitterness.
As she got older, though, Molly found her way to another kind of political statement. Sprinkled through her books are appreciations of people she considered to be journalistic and political heroes. This is the work I like best. This is where you find the answer to the question "What are you for?" If the world as it exists is so full of bumpkins, knaves, racists, and tyrants, then how do you imagine a better world? What is there to do?
Courage and Gallantry
Turn directly to the profile she wrote in 1985 for the Washington Journalism Review of the independent journalist Bob Sherrill (reprinted in Molly Ivins Can't Say That). She notes that Sherrill credited his old editor in West Virginia, Ned Chilton, for going with the motto "Sustained Outrage." Then Molly checked with Chilton, and he said, "Yeah, I have adopted 'Sustained Outrage' as my motto, but guess who gave it to me, who suggested it? Sherrill." And where did Sherrill get it? From my own passing acquaintance with Bob, I would say (understatement ahead) he has a naturally cantankerous temperament. But he found his way to Ronnie Dugger's Texas Observer in the early days, in 1960, and recognized it as a place to learn what to do journalistically with outrage.
Another of Molly's heroes was John Henry Faulk. Molly wrote about him for the (short-lived) magazine called Wigwag in 1988. (Molly was a self-proclaimed recycler: This one was reprinted in Molly Ivins Can't Say That and again in Who Let the Dogs In?) Faulk, the humorist who grew up in South Austin and was blacklisted in the 1950s, devoted himself to free speech and civil-liberties activism until his dying days in 1990. And before he died, Molly later recounted, she promised him she would take every chance she could to speak out for the Bill of Rights.
But it's all there in Molly's 1995 profile of Jessica Mitford, the well-born British investigative journalist whom Molly ranked with the best of the muckrakers, but with an additional weapon: She was always funny. It wasn't that Mitford was fearless, Molly writes, she was brave. "Much as she ridiculed those English public-school virtues, like spunk and pluck, she was herself guilty of one of them: She was gallant. Her gallantry was beyond simple courage. It sometimes takes courage to see injustice and then stand up and denounce it. Gallantry requires doing so without ever becoming bitter; gallantry requires humor and honor."
In her short 1995 piece remembering Erwin Knoll, the late editor of The Progressive, Molly recalls sitting in the magazine's Madison, Wisc., office with Knoll and younger members of the staff. She mentions the way jazz musicians pass their music hand to hand, learning by improvising together. She writes, "Independent journalism in this country is likewise a rather endangered craft, or even art form, if you want to be pretentious. And it, too, has to be passed down from hand to hand. And so we sat there, the two of us, regaling the youngsters with tales of Izzy Stone and Andrew Kopkind, Bob Sherrill and Ronnie Dugger, Frosty Troy and William Brann."
Molly worked in the tradition of Dugger, Sherrill, Mitford, and the others, and she enlarged it. She combined sustained outrage with sustained humor, which was a way to sustain good will. The Bush years only stoked the outrage while putting the humor and refusal to hate to the test. In her two books about the current president, co-written with Lou Dubose (Shrub in 2000 and Bushwhacked in 2003), she tried to warn the country about what was coming. Belatedly, the country is coming to see she had it right.
Molly was up to a lot of things in her journalism: She wanted to encourage people to have fun, to remind those who felt isolated in their liberal views that they were not alone, to use humor against the powerful and not the weak. But to be bold, to get it right, and to have the goods as she and Lou did about the Bush administration from the start isn't that the highest accomplishment in journalism?
Plus, she was gallant.
Boston "writer-at-large" Dave Denison was an editor at The Texas Observer from 1984 to 1989.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our February 23, 2007 issue: In the Feb. 9 guest "Point Austin" column by Dave Denison, we inadvertently but briefly changed the gender of Molly Ivins' dog Shit from female to male by referring to her in passing as "him." The Chronicle regrets the error.