Molly Ivins then and now

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 07, 2007 12:01 AM
Molly Ivins then and now

"Every village is about to lose its idiot." Molly Ivins on the convening of the Texas legislature

"If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day." Molly Ivins describing a Texas congressman

"There are two kinds of humor. (One kind) makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That's what I do." Molly Ivins in an interview that appeared in People magazine.

Before the snow started falling here earlier this week, this was going to be a different kind of column. It was going to be oh-so-serious, high-toned, eloquent, Churchillian even. But as the deadline neared, the snow started blurring all the edges - outside on the still street, and inside my mind. I realized I'd been writing an editorial, not a column.

If there is any one thing that distinguishes an editorial for a newspaper from a signed column, it's that the column ought to have something more personal about it. It should sound like someone you know wrote it.

That's the way Molly Ivins wrote when she was the Molly Ivins of the old Texas Observer, but of course no one could write like that forever, not even Molly Ivins.

As the years went by, she wrote less and less like that. She got so busy being Molly Ivins the legend that Molly Ivins the fresh voice faded, replaced by a reprise of her favorite lines.

Whatever the reason, Molly went from being a writer first and last to being a kind of performer, giving her audience just what they demanded, felt comfortable with, and loved her for - like a chanteuse always being asked to sing her best-known songs, never having a chance to try something different.

But right up to her long expected demise at a much too young 62, there were flashes of the big ol', good ol', raw-boned ol' Texas girl she'd always been. It came out when she talked about her illness. ("I'm sorry to say (cancer) can kill you, but it doesn't make you a better person.") That's what some of us liked most about Molly - not an ounce of sentiment to her. She was vinegar all the way through.

I won't deny being envious of her talent on at least one occasion. That's when she used the perfect phrase to describe an event I'd witnessed - but didn't have the wit to sum up in single phrase. It happened when Molly encapsulated the whole, hateful spirit of Pat Buchanan's beer-hall harangue at the 1992 Republican convention in a single phrase. She said it "probably sounded better in the original German." Perfect.

Some of us may have disagreed with Miss Molly about a few things like politics, life, art and just about everything else. But we carried her column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette out of respect for her sheer natural talent. Till it got so we could anticipate her every Texanism before she repeated it. After a while, that kind of thing gets to be old sombrero.

You have to feel sorry for a younger generation that never knew Molly Ivins in her prime, but only Molly Ivins the public monument, the folk heroine who was rolled out on appropriate occasions to delight those of the right, or rather left, persuasion.

But there was a time when Miss Ivins delighted all, when every column was as wry as a really good margarita, as doughy and nourishing as a hand-rolled tortilla fresh off the griddle. As when, always a Fort Worth kind of gal, she described Dallas as the kind of town "that would have rooted for Goliath to beat David."

Miss Molly was a Smithie of the old, pre-politically correct school, class of '66. She was at her most adorable - how she would have hated that word, adorable - when mixing her Smith Latin and Old Texican, as in: "The sine qua non, as we say in AmarilloŠ."

I was once married to a lady like that (Waco High, '54; Smith College, '58), though she would never have thought of showing off her learning. And there's just no other word for that combination of Texan and Terence but adorable.

Finally, let it be said in tribute to Miss Molly that, even when she stole a line or three, inadvertently of course, she stole only from the best: Florence King.

You have to admire somebody with both that kind of taste and that kind of nerve. No wonder she didn't last at the New York Times.