Thursday, February 08, 2007

Missing Molly

I put off writing this, I guess because I just didn’t want to let Molly go. Maybe because I’m a writer, I guess part of me was thinking that if I don’t say goodbye to her in print, it wouldn’t be real.
I knew Molly Ivins for, oh, more than thirty years, I guess. We couldn’t help knowing each other. In the 1970s we were both members of a very small cadre of journalists in Texas who were women and feminists. Heck, I wanted to BE Molly Ivins, not just because she was such a gutsy writer, but because she was six feet tall. I loved the way she’d lean over some pompous Bubba and say something outrageous, and he’d just swell up like a toad and get all red in the face. We’d egg her on – go loom over that one over there, Molly.
Most reporters in the state practically memorized the Texas Observer when Molly was coeditor there [1970 to 1976]. Those of us who worked for establishment papers were always sending tips to the Observer so they could do the stories we weren’t allowed to touch. Everyone knows Molly was funny, but they might not realize she was a damn good reporter too. Of course, she had sources all over the place, many of who would pretend not to know her when they met her in public. This was in the days when Texas was a one-party state – Democrat – with a two-party mindset – conservative Democrat and moderate/liberal Democrat. Guess which side dominated the party.
The Observer was the ONLY paper in the state that would report on issues of concern to the African-American and Hispanic people of our state, and Molly was a big reason why.
We all knew Molly was destined for big things, but we were dubious when she went off to write for the New York Times. We knew the editors at the Gray Lady would never “get” Molly Ivins, and sure enough, they did not.
When I got to Austin on assignment – or just for fun – I knew I’d see Molly somewhere, because she and I hung out around many of the same people – people like Ann Richards, and Liz Carpenter, and lesser known but equally effective women in Austin who were fearless, funny feminists.
I never DID understand where people got the idea women didn’t have a sense of humor. I never laughed so hard in my life as when I was with these uppity outrageous women.
People have talked a lot about how fearless Molly was, which would have astonished Molly. She didn’t think of herself as fearless, she just thought she was pointing out the obvious.
What Molly was, was brave, and she was brave because she was so passionate. And she was passionate because she cared about the least amongst us. A child of “ridiculous WASP privilege,” Molly was determined to do her bit to level the playing field.
Molly loved a lot of things, but she loved politics with a fervor that practically set her hair on fire. She particularly loved Texas politics, because here it is equal opportunity for fools – as both the Ds and the Rs demonstrate every legislative session. As she put it, “The Great State has a large loony streak.” After all, it was members of our Lege who tried to make it illegal to libel a vegetable. To be fair, other members of the Lege did try to explain to them that the First Amendment made such a law unconstitutional.
Molly had several “all-time favorite” bits of looniness.
“The time two Republicanesses duked it out at a meeting of the state Republican Executive Committee remains my all-time favorite bout—even better than the last all-House duke-out in the Lege, when our elected representatives threw chairs and chili dogs at one another while a barbershop quartet sang “I Have A Dream, Dear”: that was the duke-out that caused them to ban food on the floor of the House,” she wrote in 1997.
Some days, our elected officials made Molly’s job just too easy. I mean, who could make up a metaphor like the one state senator David Sibley of Waco used to describe the rigors of trying to write a tort-reform bill. Sibley compared it to “playing pickup sticks with your butt cheeks—no matter what you do, you mess up everything.”
Molly loved politics because she knew it was the work of We, The People, the true “deciders” in a democracy – as she reminded us in her last column. Molly never lost her respect for elected officials who did their jobs. What she hated were hacks who turned politics into the work of lobbyists, corporations, and cynics.
She also loved journalism, but she had no time for journalists who did not do their jobs. Her scorn for the way the press rolled over and played pussycat for the Bush administrations was limitless.
Molly believed down to her boots in the wisdom of We, The People. She was an unabashed patriot who could get all weepy eyed—yes, Molly Ivins—over things like little kids singing the Star-Spangled Banner.
She was frightened of few things—this, after all, is the woman who wrote deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, “Just because the Bible says something does not make it true”—but one thing that scared her was fundamentalism of any kind. She wrote that she had learned that the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory), the diagnostic tool, could “spot two personality traits without fail. . .rule-breaking in a way that can and often does lead to criminal behavior and . . . fundamentalism. Maybe the shrinks should consider declaring it a personality disorder.”
Molly was very clear-eyed on the dangers posed by fundamentalists as well as the fact that liberals were simply awful at dealing with them.
“I persist in thinking that fundamentalists are misunderstood, frightened (with some cause), and generally get damned little of the empathy and compassion on which we liberals so pride ourselves. I also think they shouldn’t be allowed to touch the Constitution or even PBS. Liberals have this revolting tendency toward reasonable compromise: “I mean, really, what harm is some nondenominational prayer in the schools going to hurt anyone? Or a moment of silence, for heaven’s sake?” Trouble is, we’re compromising with people who don’t understand compromise. Tolerance, inadequate though it may be, is still an absolute requirement in a democracy,” she wrote in 1994.
Molly understood that backing down on a principle just because the other side was passionate and noisy about it was simply rewarding terrorism. [The leadership of the Episcopal Church has been driving her nuts for years. I regret we never talked about what she thought of Rowan Williams, but I can guess.]
Molly spoke to a lot of meetings of journalists. And her message was always essentially the same: “So our lessons are clear: Don’t lie. Certitude is the enemy. Self-doubt is good. Particularly difficult lessons in a nervous age, when the search for certainty compels so many.”
Molly had a hard time understanding why people weren’t more pissed off about George Bush. She was a great believer in the redeeming power of being pissed off in a focused way. She was astounded at the things Americans wasted anger on – the liberal media [someone please tell me where that is], black helicopters, secular humanists, the plot to take our guns away. She felt the anger of the public was America’s greatest natural resource—when it was used to keep those in power accountable.
So if you want to pay tribute to Molly, go raise hell in the halls of government. Speak truth to power. Call lies by their name. And then go eat Mexican food, have a beer or a Coke, and laugh about it all. That’s what Molly is doing.


Ann said...

Thanks for this. Prayers for our country - that more strong voices arise in her wake.

Caminante said...

What a wonderful tribute to Molly... I pray there will be more strong people like her, not just for us but for you.

Barbi Click said...

Katie, if it is any solace, I read you a long time before I ever read Molly. I am sorry that I never met Molly face to face. I say the same for Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards. But I am forever thankful that I can say, Katie Sherrod is my friend.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing your memories of Molly.

Mike Holmes said...

Beautiful words. I knew Molly through her writing and through her monthly parties at her house in Austin. There is now a void in journalism and politics but we can always remember her larger than life personality and rejoice that she spent time with us. Plus, I think she would be happy that people finally understand what a doofus Bush is.