Molly Ivins Gave Me a Voice

She was fearless when I was not.

Announcement: Starting next week Writer Everlasting will publish on Mondays, and my sister publication, Constant Commoner, will publish on Fridays. Most of the time. Unless I have something I want to share and it just can’t keep—then I’ll probably have to break the rules. But I’ll try to stick with it, and I hope you’ll stick with me.

You know I’ve been thinking about this for a while. We talked about it last week:

Writer Everlasting
How Often is Too Often?
Hi fellow writers, can I have a minute? Yesterday, on Substack’s Writer Office Hours, we talked about scheduling posts and about frequency and I realized I’m probably doing this all wrong. I don’t stick to a schedule and I think I’m okay with that, but please tell me how you feel about knowing when my posts will appear. Shou……
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So, while publishing schedules don’t mean much to me, it seems they do to most readers. We’ll see how it goes.

I was going to start the new schedule this week, but on Monday I realized I’d missed Molly Ivins’ birthday, right after I’d already published a piece, and I didn’t want to publish two in one day. But I couldn’t wait to talk about her, either, so here it is.

Molly would have been 76, still young enough to have plenty of fight left. I miss her dagger-like jabs at the foolish and the powerful. I wish she could have hung around for the Trump debacle, but of course she couldn’t. This is my tribute to Molly, written on March 16, 2019.

Molly Ivins Gave Me A Voice

She was fearless when I was not.

I haven’t thought about Molly Ivins in a while, and that alone brings me up short, considering how, when I do think about her, I understand how appropriate it is that the word “fan” comes from the word “fanatical”.

I own every book Molly ever wrote or co-wrote or even just wrote a foreword for. I’ve read and re-read Bill Minutaglio’s biography, Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, until my copy is now dog-eared, grimy, and more than a little smelly. (I munch on things while I read. Who doesn’t?)

Molly died at the end of January in 2007 after a long battle with cancer. We all knew she was dying because she knew she was dying, but knowing didn’t make it any easier when it happened.

The lights went out for those of us who saw her as a mentor in the political-opinion-as-humor business — a gig some of us chose strictly because of her. We knew there would never be anyone who could take her place, and, oddly, that alone was some slight consolation.

The things she wrote could be hysterically funny or wrenching and heartbreaking, often in the same piece. She wrote zingers before zingers were a thing. As with any long body of writing, sometimes her columns worked and sometimes they didn’t. She hit her share of clunkers, but overall she was distinct, she was laugh-out-loud funny, and she was fearless.

She came from Texas wealth — coming out parties, the whole bit — but balked at all of that early on and left it behind as soon as she could. She cut her writing teeth at a series of Texas newspapers, building a following impressive enough for someone at the New York Times to notice. They lured her to New York, where she fit in about as well as a Longhorn steer in a room full of pampered poodles. It was a short but messy sojourn, and she headed back to the Lone Star state, where she regained her voice, strengthened it, and bellowed it out in an unforgettable, often exaggerated, Texas twang.

I’m a thousand miles from home right now, which means my Molly books aren’t at my fingertips and I can’t grab passages and quotes and tidbits and tributes. (See below for a sampling.) Otherwise, this story would be miles long, so be thankful for the little things, my friends.

But I mention her now because I just saw in the Texas Monthly that there’s a new documentary about to roar onto the scene. It’s fresh off of Sundance, it’s called Raise Hell, it’s about Molly Ivins, and, as you can imagine, I’m beside myself with joy and anticipation.

New Documentary Revives Molly Ivins's Sharp Wit in the Age of Trump
Following the world premiere of the documentary Raise Hell at January's Sundance Film Festival, producer James Egan…

From the article:

In some ways Ivins was the original liberal blogger, a precursor to both MSNBC and politically-minded talk show hosts like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — someone who trafficked in reportage and punditry but also comedy and advocacy. She was talking about “the 1 percent” and opining that the true political spectrum was “top to bottom, not left to right,” decades ago. (So were others, of course, but they weren’t nationally syndicated mainstream newspaper columnists.) She also suffered as many trolls as anyone in the social media age. It’s just that the hateful rants she received arrived via snail mail. “I don’t look at the letters written on Big Chief tablets in red crayon,” she once told Bryant Gumbel.

Molly and I were nothing alike in real life. She was six feet tall — a full foot taller than me.

She boasted that she could drink anyone under the table, and often did. I never was a successful drinker.

When she entered a room it was as if Hurricane Molly had arrived, and you couldn’t not notice. Me, I’m mostly invisible and I like it that way.

She wrote fast and furious, sometimes writing her columns in less than a half hour while her friends waited in another room, ready for some serious pub crawling. I write garbage first, then agonize over every word until even the words I like threaten to give up on me.

She swore a lot, devising new and delicious ways to be profane. Shit, Hell, and Damn are about it for me, unless I get really crazy and throw in a Good Goddamn.

She was fearless. She wrote about Texas politics, she wrote about American politics, she wrote about world politics, and she didn’t care who she stalked and stabbed. When they came back at her, she stood her ground and fought to save her hill. Magnificently. I’m not fearless, but I’m braver because of her.

In real life I’m a people pleaser. I want everyone to like me and I go out of my way not to make waves. I hate face-to-face confrontations — with this one caveat: unless it’s about politics.

I’ve been writing political opinion since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan came straight out of Hollywood and everything went to hell in the Midwestern blue collar rustbelt where I lived.

I wrote a weekly column in a chain of papers and, as I saw what was happening, I gradually moved it from Life in the Suburbs to Liberal Attacking The Teflon God. The newspaper chain covered a large, solidly blue collar, strong union area outside of Detroit. My editor was fine with whatever I wrote as long as I got it in on time. I felt pretty safe. Then I wrote something against the Vietnam War — that war that had ended nearly a decade before — and all hell broke loose. We got more Letters to the Editor in a week than they usually got in a couple of months.

One night I was in line at the supermarket when I heard someone yelling, two cashiers over. It was a guy shaking his fist at me, telling me I’d better damn well shut up about Vietnam, I didn’t know what I was talking about, and besides that, I stink. “Go back to changing diapers,” he hollered. (He recognized me from my picture at the top of my column, even though the newspaper photog made me look far better than I really did.)

I kept on, but I stayed safe after that, writing mainly about things I knew our readership would agree with. No more fuss. And I’ve always been sorry about that.

Molly would have been so ashamed of me.

So when I began my blog, Ramona’s Voices, in 2009, I channeled Molly. I didn’t want to write like her — well, yes I did, but I clearly couldn’t — I wanted her strength, her bravery, her guts, her ability to laugh at the pissants, brushing them off like so many No-See-Ums. If they bothered her, she never let it show. I vowed to be like that.

Since my blog has been nearly invisible for its 10 year run, it’s kind of a safe place, but when I cross-post it in places like Crooks and Liars the shit hits the fan! Sometimes they let me have it, but good.

But I channel Molly Ivins and it’s water off my back. She’s my suit of armor, my mouthy mentor, the finger poking me in the shoulder, spurring me on. (“Git im!” she says.)

And I go get ‘em.

Things Molly sez (pulled from the internet, because, as I said, my books are a thousand miles away. These are but a hint of who she was):

“I know: ‘Guns Don’t Kill People.’ But I suspect that they have something to do with it. If you point your finger at someone and say, ‘Bang, bang, you’re dead,’ not much actually happens.”

“I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.”

“It’s like having Ted Baxter of the old ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ show running for president: Gore has Ted’s manner, and Bush has his brain.”

“I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.”

“The thing is this: You got to have fun while you’re fightin’ for freedom, ’cause you don’t always win.”

And last but not least:

“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”

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