Molly Ivins, one of the great political writers and wits of our time, died today in Austin at the age of 62.
She responded to Pat Buchanan's somber speech about America's "culture war" at the 1992 Republican National Convention by noting that the speech "probably sounded better in the original German." Of the first President Bush she wrote, "Calling George Bush shallow is like calling a dwarf short." When George W. Bush first ran for governor of Texas, Ivins began calling him "Shrub."
Her progressive politics belied her conservative upbringing as the daughter of an oil company executive living in Houston. She offered some thoughts about the origins of her views in the introduction to her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? (The book's title was derived from the line plastered on billboards in Dallas by her employer, the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, in an effort to defuse--and perhaps capitalize on--an uproar generated when Ivins wrote about a congressman, "If his I.Q. slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day.") Ivins wrote:
I'm supposed to explain myself in this introduction--specifically, how come I came out so strange. Having been properly reared by a right-wing family in East Texas, how'd I turn out this peculiar? I believe all Southern liberals come from the same starting point--race. Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.
If you grew up white before the civil rights movement anywhere in the South, all grown-ups lied. They'd tell you stuff like, "Don't drink out of the colored fountain, dear, it's dirty." In the white part of town, the white fountain was always covered with chewing gum and the marks of grubby kids' paws, and the colored fountain was always clean. Children can be horribly logical.
The first great political movement to come along in my lifetime was the civil rights movement, and I was for it. The second great question was the war in Vietnam, and I was against it. So they told me I was a double-dyed liberal. I said, "O.K." What did I know? Later on, people took to claiming it meant I was for big government, high taxes, and communism. That's when I learned never to let anyone else define my politics.
I suspect there are a couple of other factors accounting for the odd hitch in my getalong. Being female, for starters. Can't say I've ever come to any particularly cosmic conclusions about gender, but when you start out in a culture that defines your role as standing on the sidelines with pom-poms to cheer while the guys get to play the game, it will raise a few questions in your mind. Another problem is my size. It wasn't that I ever rejected the norms of Southern womanhood. I was just ineligible. I was the Too Tall Jones of my time. I grew up a St. Bernard among greyhounds. It's hard to be cute if you're six feet tall.
My copy of Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? was signed by Ivins. She wrote: "Texans-in-exile. Come home! You know we get to laugh more here--we have more to laugh about. Hang in and keep fightin’ for freedom. And keep laughin’ too. Best wishes--Molly Ivins."
Ivins wasn't just funny; more often than not she was on to something important. In the weeks right after 9/11, Dan Caldwell, Russ Burgos, and I gave a series of lectures at Pepperdine on terrorism. I began one of my lectures with an observation that Ivins had made a week or two earlier in her column: "In 1950, the United States got involved in a war and called it a police action. We are now involved in a police action that we’re calling a war. The semantic confusion is having unfortunate effects on everyone." Slowly, more and more experts have come to the same conclusion that Ivins reached immediately after the declaration of a "war on terror."
In the next-to-last column Ivins wrote, dated January 8, 2007, she promised to make every one of her columns thereafter about the war in Iraq "until we find some way to end it." Sadly, the cancer that was first diagnosed in 1999 took Molly Ivins' life before much progress could be made toward ending the war.
Ivins believed that we all need to take an active part in the political life of our community and our nation. That's why in her final columns she urged "Bubba," the good ol' boy in Texas who'd rather drink beer and watch football than get out and vote, to take matters into his own hands concerning the war. Ivins once wrote, "Politics is not a picture on a wall or a television sitcom that you can decide you don't much care for." It's a sentiment worth remembering from a woman worth remembering.