Molly And the Mainstream

Even after her death, the media couldn’t figure out what made Molly Ivins so beloved.

Susan J. Douglas

Only Paul Krugman of the New York Times seemed to get it. In Missing Molly Ivins,” Krugman was a lone voice in the mainstream press to capture her unique gifts, and the enormous heart she gave to us all. Some people really should live forever, and Ivins was one of them. The hole she leaves in public commentary is enormous, and with every new outrage to come (and they seem to come in battalions), we will miss her more and more. Krugman emphasized two things about Ivins that others failed to note: her extraordinary prescience on the central political issue of our time” and her adherence to the principle that when people are most afraid to challenge authority are also the times when it’s most important to do just that.”

Molly Ivins was a fierce critic of hypocrisy and venality, and she was very, very funny: Her bullshit detector was possibly the most finely honed in the business.

Ivins was a fierce critic of hypocrisy and venality, and she was very, very funny: Her bullshit detector was possibly the most finely honed in the business, and her ability to make us feel the delicious combination of indignation suspended in laughter was what made us love her. What one needed when observing politics (especially in Texas, which she referred to as the National Laboratory for Bad Government”) was a keen appreciation of the surreal.” In one of her better-known quips, Ivins said of a congressman, If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” 

It is her humor that seems to have given the mainstream media license to trivialize her death and sanitize her politics. Heidi Collins on CNN announced, Every now and then Molly Ivins liked to poke a little fun at the politicians.” She then noted that Ivins had written several books, including two about George W. Bush.” On CBS, Ivins’ death was only briefly noted by Katie Couric, and the CBS Early Show reiterated that Ivins poked fun at politicians.” Not even the more detailed obituaries on NPR or the New York Times noted that Ivins was a feminist and a progressive, whose writing appeared in The Progressive for 20 years.

Ivins was doing a bit more than poking a little fun” when she emphasized, early on in 2003, that the American public had been lied to” about the war in Iraq. By October 2003, Ivins noted, We have now lost more soldiers in the peace’ than we did during the war.” She added, ruefully, I have a suggestion for a withdrawal deadline: Let’s leave Iraq before we’ve killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein did.” She skewered Bush’s repeated lies about the deficit and the alleged positive impact of his tax cuts, reminding readers that those cuts, if made permanent, will add more than $3 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years. The federal budget would be virtually in balance if there had been no tax cuts.” Of Team Bush’s all out war on the press, Ivins wrote We are under full attack now, and it is time to fight back.”

And then there were those two books” she and Lou Dubose wrote about Bush. Shrub and Bushwhacked, both bestsellers, were ferocious, infuriating and, yes, funny exposés of Bush’s policies while governor of Texas and, of his importation of these disasters to the federal level where they hurt far greater numbers of people while also devastating the environment. Bushwhacked was about Bush’s various misbegotten programs doing cruel things to real people.” There were fabulous sentences like, Public policy stamped MADE IN TEXAS is like Hungarian wine – it does not travel well.” Ivins’ witticisms eased us into accounts of everyday people fighting against incinerators in their neighborhoods that would burn toxic sludge, with the Bush administration eliminating any recourse for appeal of their construction. The book reported on USDA intentions to relax its standards for fecal contamination of beef and its plans to add irradiated meat to the nation’s School Lunch Program. Are we all still laughing? This is merely poking a little fun”?

Oh how we will miss her. I want to read what she would have said about the press brouhaha over Joe Biden’s surprise that a black man could be both clean” and articulate.” Was this a cloddish remark? Sure. Did it deserve front-page coverage, given what else is going on in the world and given the many deadly lies from Team Bush that never got this kind of scrutiny? And, should we be surprised at Biden? No – and Ivins would have been the first to remind us of Biden’s bungling of the Anita Hill hearings, where he suppressed testimonies from women who would have corroborated her claims about Thomas.

As the Senate stumbles along, as the war in Iraq continues to exact its heart-breaking toll and as Team Bush persists along its arrogant path of calamitous policies, we will indeed miss Ivins’ sarcasm. But we will miss her courage, her ferocious commitment to social justice and her extraordinary ability to cut to the absolute heart of issues even more.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her forthcoming book is In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead..
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