Profound, insightful and sorrowful stories poured forth from news organizations around the world two weeks ago commenting on the death from breast cancer of Molly Ivins -- an award-winning journalist, best-selling author and syndicated columnist from Texas. She was 62.
KPRC-TV Channel 2 news reporter Phil Archer may have summarized her career most succinctly: "She was bigger than Will Rogers."
Her memorial services in the First Methodist Church next to the Capitol in Austin were as unorthodox and as irreverent as Molly's numerous writings and television appearances. Delighted shouts and a prolonged standing ovation erupted when Molly was quoted saying, "The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention." Molly was the one who had popularized the appellations "Shrub" and "Dubya" to refer to President Bush 43.
It is difficult to imagine what the liberal political community in Texas and the nation would be like without the wit, wisdom and courage of Molly Ivins. She literally did speak truth to power, often and for a long time. Antiwar activist and recording artist Eliza Gilkyson sang in the memorial service. Afterwards she told me that Molly had given her the courage to write and record her fabulous song "Highway 9," about the Iraq war. "It was at a time when it took real guts to stand up against the President," Gilkyson added. I thought the Dixie Chicks could add a big amen to that observation.
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Beyond Molly's courage and brilliant political insights, what most people remember was her extraordinarily funny and vulgar style. She was famous for saying outrageous, obscene things about powerful people and getting away with it. One of her greatest gifts was using the words of those in power to expose their hypocrisies. Molly understood, better than most, that entertaining evidence of the inadequacies, corruptions and deceptions that weaken democracy can be found in the actual words and actions of its self-serving officials. Her legacy (and our duty) is to not allow ourselves to be fooled, or to look the other way and pretend we don't see.
Molly Ivins understood that politics and journalism thrive at least partly on theater. With a rough and almost disheveled appearance, Molly commonly looked like Governor Ann Richard's motorcycle sidekick. With a nasal twang and rolling eyes, Molly's speech and style was 100 percent Texas good-ole-girl dialect. It was this all-Texas, super-smart woman who captivated network television. Whether it was an in-depth interview on PBS NewsHour or Larry King Live, Molly Ivins portrayed a true Texas character. I believe she felt that we are all actors and that if you are lucky enough to find a part that fits, you should play it well.
Yet this iconic media personality, Texana Molly, was difficult to watch for me and some of those who knew Molly in the "old" days.
I met Molly Ivins in the summer of 1966 at the Houston Chronicle. As intern reporters we sat next to each other, behind big black mechanical typewriters on the city desk. Molly was on her way to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, having just graduated from prestigious Smith College. She spoke with an East Coast, educated elite diction inflected by a junior-year-abroad French accent. She sounded like Jacqueline Kennedy. And like Jackie, she not only spoke fluent French, she also read novels and political theory in French.
Molly was tall and slim and beautiful. In her unpretentious classic, expensive clothing, Molly exuded a soft, confident aura. Molly taught me to sail her father's 32-foot racing sloop at the Houston Yacht Club. She was the daughter of corporate power and wealth. Her father, "General Jim" Ivins, was chief counsel and executive vice president of Tenneco, the giant energy and real estate conglomerate. Her family lived in River Oaks. An honors graduate of Houston's private and elite St. John's High School, Molly went on to Smith, a prestigious women's college, because back then the Ivy League only admitted men.
Through her many incarnations, Molly and I were always friends, relatively close or more distant, depending on the period. From graduate student at Columbia, to Minneapolis Tribune reporter, to Texas Observer editor, to New York Times reporter, to the Dallas Times Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist to Austin-based, independent syndicated columnist.
She once interviewed me in Sun Valley, Idaho when I was a federal political appointee delivering a speech promoting President Carter's conservation and alternative energy policy. Once when I was senior assistant Harris County attorney, Molly called me for a quote because she was writing a story on the failed and hypocritical war on drugs. She used Houston's falling street prices and increasing potency of narcotics as vivid proof of government's preposterously incompetent drug policy. I felt honored to be quoted. Even though I was a good, longtime friend, Molly cut me no slack in her stories. In this respect, she never changed. She called it as she saw it -- hilariously and with an edge.
Seeing the public persona of Molly Ivins mutate felt like watching Samuel Clemens turn into Mark Twain. When you saw Molly on CBS's 60 Minutes, you were seeing the public Molly. She was tough and rarely showed her private loneliness or sadness. I know some of the personal hurt that she felt because the Houston Chronicle, her hometown newspaper, refused to carry her column. We in Houston had to read Molly Ivins in the West University and River Oaks Examiners that were thrown, unbidden, on our front lawns. Molly, you see, had written stinging criticisms of the Chronicle's editor Everett Collier and his conservative crony role as apologist for the political establishment. Back then, the Chronicle was owned by Jesse Jones's legacy, the Houston Endowment; its politics were very conservative. Even after the Hearst Corporation bought the newspaper from the Houston Endowment, some Chronicle people never forgot or forgave Molly.
When we were young, Molly Ivins and I smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of beer together. But she drank a lot more beer than I did and for a lot longer time. It took its toll. People tell me that before Governor Ann died of cancer, she pleaded with Molly to stop drinking. When Molly died, she was 18 months and two days off the sauce. She asked that her obituary include "She died sober."
Surrounded by an extraordinary network of supportive friends at the time of her death, Molly nonetheless waged some very personal and private battles, especially toward the end. She did so with the courage and humor that defined her professional life. Though the cancer ultimately overcame her, she beat the beer and wrote some of her finest, funniest and most important columns in the last weeks of her life. I know she's sorry to have to bow out of the 2008 season just as it's gearing up, and I know it'll be a lot less fun without her.
Terry O'Rourke is a Houston lawyer who teaches international law at the University of St. Thomas's Cameron Graduate School of Business.
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