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Don’t Mess With Texas: The Lone Star State Loses Its Greatest Spitfire

It would be easy to emphasize the aspects of Molly Ivins that transcended her political commitments. She was a seductive, sassy, charm storm who probably stole secret chuckles from her most maligned targets. In fact, whereas George Bush’s faux folk mechanical bull image turns the best aspects of Texas and southern culture into a cruel parody, Ivins was the platinum real deal.

Ivins took former Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s formulation that “all politics is local” and turned it into lifelong passion for seeing the deeper significance of local and national struggles for power. Her colloquial intelligence valued the idioms and far flung similes of the West Texas dialect without denigrating complicated ideas. She was not the enemy of thought, but its finest drinking buddy. While she disdained pretension, she loathed more the idea that being a Southerner meant that spitting out a cliché was a Herculean accomplishment. Bush wouldn’t have to worry with Ivins because you’d never even get to fool her once. She was the best representation of Texans’ suspicion of authority and a troublemaker in the fiercely individualist American tradition, but without all that baseless malice and horny itch for massacre.

To be on the receiving end of her ire was to weather the withering satire of a woman who could tie a moron into intellectual knots in the space it took most people to put a comma. She was a lit fuse when you pissed her off, the only Sheriff in town, both mannered and untamed. After Newt Gingrich, in one of many signature acts of rhetorical repulsiveness, blamed Susan Smith’s murder of her children and a gang shooting of a three-year old on liberalism, Ivins had the split second wherewithal to bury him: “The connection with the New Deal may not leap to your mind, as neither liberals nor New Dealers have ever been much noted for putting up with violence or brutality. Nonviolence and efforts to stop brutality are rather more the hallmarks of liberals than of conservatives, from the civil-rights movement to Amnesty International. But Gingrich is not one to let an opportunity for demagoguery pass by.” (You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You, Vintage Books, 1998)

The trouble with most obituaries is that they are speeches too concerned with the easily bruised sensibilities of the living. When Ronald Reagan died, every talking head in the country tripped over their own tongues in the mad rush to adore “The Great Communicator”, though many did so because Republicans have since proved that under their leadership things can always get worse. There is nothing polite in dementing reality in order to turn grief into something like finding the right fork to eat your salad with. Ivins would spend her career refusing to play the morally compromising games of beltway collegiality. Though she could make quick work of conservatives with damning nicknames straight from hell’s guestbook (e.g., Bush (“shrub”) and Governor Rick Perry “Good Hair”), she also never forgave Bill Clinton for making a campaign pit stop to execute the mentally disabled Ricky Ray Rector just to shore up his deal dealer bonafides. She was a progressive to the bone, always understanding the ways Clinton represented as much a loss of genuinely liberal ground as he did a fleeting victory.

It was that sense of always maintaining a big picture context, the principal over the policy, which elevated her writing from mere reporting to public intellectualism that aimed to be understood. Ivins was one of the world’s most gifted bar stool philosophers, someone who effortlessly segued into the world of ideas from the sure-footed ground of details. She was, at her core, a newspaper woman, someone who spent years covering the maddening day-to-day of the Texas legislature, but loving every second of the insanity. While Washington journalists frequently, in disgusting displays of condescension, reduce the race for the presidency as a contest about “who you’d most like to have a beer with”, Ivins was the happy hour compatriot who could do more than crush cans on her face. In an op-ed about the American tendency to misdirect anger, Ivins, in her own Mark Twain twang, played the philosopher that you’d much rather have two beers with.

“The amazing thing about what happens when you hold people with real power in this society responsible for the way it’s run is that they, each and every one, will then begin to explain to you how powerless they are. My favorite example is ‘Chainsaw’ All Dunlap, the CEO who gets hired to fire people. Dunlap claims that he has no choice — he has to answer to those stockholders. But I would suggest that you hold you’re fire, and your anger, for those who have power. Wasting it on imaginary threats or powerless people is wasting a valuable national resource.” For Ivins, you could both communicate to large numbers of people and make them think in grander terms outside the cage of impulsive, self-righteous rage. This is something wholly outside my skill as a writer. But I understand Ivins’ life enough to know that the appropriate response is admiration, not resentment.

As a person with head and heart on speaking terms, she always preferred quixotic integrity to empty triumph, especially on issues like “welfare reform” where she would find herself as a lonely voice arguing that slick sales words like “reform” often hide their list of casualties. The calculus of polls and contorted attempts to jockey for the meaningless middle couldn’t have been more disconnected from her central passions as a writer and thinker. I know of few writers who worked so tirelessly to get working class people to believe in their own agency more than the inevitability of their disenfranchisement. She pursued the truth even when it scuffed friends and allies, even when it might serve the enemies of her values. While she never suffered from the kind of contemporary objectivity that requires giving equal time to unequal ideas and facts, she did have beliefs and progressive ideals, a driving sense of justice that she could comfortably put on cruise control. She fit into her own ideas like dog-earned tennis shoes that you refuse to throw away. Because of that, she never sounded strident even when doling out acid-bath accuracy.

Any tribute to Ivins would be walking wounded if it failed to mention that she could turn the painful absurdity of politics into a gut-busting burst of laughter. She was a funny cuss. In a tossed-off passage in an essay on her love for rabble rousing, she notes in a “you didn’t hear this from me” tone that, “I love our national habit of polling ourselves to find out how ignorant we are and our subsequent fits of mortification when we all slap our respective foreheads in alarm because the latest poll shows 62.7 percent of us believe Alexis de Tocqueville never should have divorced Blake Carrington.” Even in her jokes, she made no excuses for the people who didn’t deserve them. If Ivins could be said to be a populist, she was so only in the high ground sense of the word. She never practiced “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. To write a tribute to Ivins without ruffling a few feathers, would be like asking Justin Timberlake to compose a fitting requiem for Miles Davis.

I will miss Ivins, because I know that she cannot be replaced. There is no understudy waiting in the wings and she leaves behind a journalistic culture of Fox News, Chris Matthews, and Good Morning America: a bullshitter’s barren paradise. While we chronicle the Machiavellian ping pong match of politics in the same voice and in the same breathlessness that we cover Lindsay Lohan’s upchucked dinners, Ivins shook her head, put on her boots, and worked for a living. She was Upton Sinclair with better taste in BBQ. Beholden to no one and in the corner of every underdog that dared to fight city hall, Ivins’ piss and vinegar, her blue jean elegance, her provincial understanding of the universal, and her whittling knife of wit have gone to a better place. And if for some reason it’s not better there, you can be damn sure it will be when she gets through with it.