I woke in Switzerland around ten at night Texas time to the terrible news that Molly Ivins had died, losing in the end her seven years-long battle with breast cancer and paused her confrontation against meanness, arrogance, foolishness, and just plain stupidity in government and politics — in life.
I write “pause” because Molly will go on fighting for what is good and against what is appalling because we will continue to read her books and columns — revisiting them time after time to quote her, to marvel at her wit and wisdom, to weep for ourselves at her loss.
I did not know Molly personally and I am angry that I never followed up on my desire to have done so. The closest I came to her was during a telephone conversation with my buddy David Corn, who happened to be in her kitchen at the time. I was a little jealous that he was there and that I was not. I think of lot of writers must have been covetous of her time.
Yet all of us who had the pleasure of her company in print knew her well as a straight-shootin' guide to truth.
Everyone this morning is writing about her “barbed” wit, the fact that she dubbed George W. Bush “The Shrub” and "President Billy Bob Forehead.” Molly Ivins was never mean, never out to destroy someone — she wrote only to remind people (with a poke) that they might be mistaken. She had a talent for humbling without humiliating. Her columns in the New York Times, The Nation, the Atlantic, Esquire, the Dallas Times-Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and of course the Texas Observer should be required reading for every political science student, pollster, and candidate
What I remember most, though, was the other side of her coin. Molly did not make her reputation praising the subjects of her columns, but when she spoke of those she admired, like Ann Richards or Barbara Jordan, she was a poet.
This is part of what she said to Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the NewsHour eleven years ago.
It seemed to me that the words, the first and only, came before Barbara Jordan came so often that they often they almost seemed like a permanent title, the first and only black woman to serve in the Texas Senate, the first black woman elected to Congress, the first black elected to Congress, the Reconstruction, the first black woman to serve on corporate boards. She broke so many barriers. She was the first and the only so long and so often that I think it is not only a tribute to her abilities but it infected her entire personality. Jordan was a woman of magisterial dignity and she wore that dignity like armor because she needed to. When she first came to the Texas Senate, one Senator used to call her “that old nigamammy washer woman,” and there were others who treated her with that sort of courtly conversation that such gentlemen reserve for the little lady. Jordan overcame all of that by sheer strength of personality, by ability, by her force of intelligence, and, of course, her superb voice, the rhetoric. We always said that if Hollywood ever needed somebody to play the role of God Almighty, they ought to get Barbara Jordan.
Ten years later she wrote about Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas:
She was so generous with her responses to other people. If you told Ann Richards something really funny, she wouldn't just smile or laugh, she would stop and break up completely. She taught us all so much — she was a great campfire cook. Her wit was a constant delight. One night on the river on a canoe trip, while we all listened to the next rapid, which sounded like certain death, Ann drawled, “It sounds like every whore in El Paso just flushed her john.”
Or this classic:
Perched like birds in a row were Bob Bullock, then state comptroller, moi, Charles Miles, the head of Bullock's personnel department, and Ms. Ann Richards. Bullock, 20 years in Texas politics, knew every sorry, no good sumbitch in the entire state. Some old racist judge from East Texas came up to him, “Bob, my boy, how are you?”
Bullock said, “Judge, I'd like you to meet my friends: This is Molly Ivins with the Texas Observer.”
The judge peered up at me and said, “How yew, little lady?”
Bullock: “And this is Charles Miles, the head of my personnel department.” Miles, who is black, stuck out his hand, and the judge got an expression on his face as though he had just stepped into a fresh cowpie. He reached out and touched Charlie's palm with one finger, while turning eagerly to the pretty, blonde, blue-eyed Ann Richards. “And who is this lovely lady?”
Ann beamed and replied, "I am Mrs. Miles.”
Ann Richards, who Molly called “Annie”, died of cancer in 2006. Ann was 73. I knew Ann Richards from DNC functions and I felt she and Molly Ivins had a lot in common. Ann could skewer someone, but never be mean about it. Barbara Jordan also died from cancer — leukemia — at age 59. Molly was 62.
Molly, I am so exceptionally regretful I never had the prospect to visit with you in your kitchen and share a cup of coffee and a story or two. But as always, I’ll go back to your “stuff” time and again for a head-shaking chuckle, to filch an idea, or to parrot yet again a Molly Ivins zinger.
I cherished you, and we never met.