Mighty pen 

Biography recalls Ivins' rebellious voice

These days, it's practically a cliché to point out that journalism is more about punditry than it is about objectivity. In that light, the life and career of Molly Ivins, as illustrated in Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith's biography, Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, legacy is particularly relevant: Everyone from Rachel Maddow to Glenn Beck (yep, him too) owes her a nod.

Upon graduating from Columbia University's journalism school in 1967, Ivins took a job at the Minneapolis Tribune, where she covered a beat called movements for social change. Three years later, she accepted the position of co-editor and political reporter for the traditionally liberal newsmagazine the Texas Observer, in Austin. Shortly after writing a polite resignation letter to the editor of the Tribune, Ivins wrote what Minutaglio and Smith unabashedly call "The Mother of All Fuck Off Stories," wherein Ivins both harshly criticized the Tribune ("...the paper is not hell," she wrote, "just a stone wall drag...The horror stories are endless—every reporter has dozens."), as well as outline her own philosophy on the uselessness of objectivity. "I've seen the truth murdered too many times in the name of objectivity," Ivins wrote in the piece. In many ways, the stance against objectivity would ultimately define her entire career (even more so than her dubbing of Dubya as "shrub"). Later in life she would continue to speak explicitly against it: "There is no such thing as objectivity...I actually think it is pernicious as a goal."

Born in California, Ivins moved with her family to Houston at the age of 5 when her authoritarian father, known as "General Jim," took an executive position at a billion-dollar-a-year gas and oil company. The family settled in the affluent River Oaks neighborhood, with Molly and her older sister and younger brother attending private school. Because of their families' connections to oil, Ivins and George W. Bush occasionally bumped into one another at social gatherings. They weren't necessarily friends, but they knew each other well enough to say hello. After high school graduation, Ivins attended Scripps for a year before transferring to Smith College in Massachusetts. Already nearly fluent in French, she spent her junior year abroad in Paris before graduating with a degree in history in 1966. Lou Dubose, Ivins' co-author on Bushwacked and Shrub, once said she was trilingual: "She spoke private-school French, erudite Smith College English, and ribald Texan."

click to enlarge Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life - Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith - hardcover, PublicAffairs - 360 pages, $26.95
  • Molly Ivins: A Rebel LifeBill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smithhardcover, PublicAffairs360 pages, $26.95

Though the paradoxes would serve her well throughout her career—she could alternately work her way through an East Coast international newsroom and still drink any Texas legislator under the table—the persona would often become a bane. Friends tell stories of Ivins feeling the need to "perform" for people. Her co-editor at the Observer remarked that after publishers put a picture of Ivins in cowboy boots on the cover of her first book (Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?), she became the cowgirl from Texas with the biting wit. During a visit to California in the early 1990s, Warren Beatty invited Ivins to dinner and friends later remarked how "it was as if they were waiting for her to perform. They were fans of her, liberal, and they were waiting for her to perform."

Her later life was punctuated by merciless attacks on George W. Bush ("If he were any dumber, we'd have to water him twice a week."), speaking engagements, bestselling books and her widely syndicated columns (including a long, bi-weekly run in the Independent). Minutaglio and Smith write a coherent, intimate portrait that covers all her triumphs without ignoring the hardships in her life: her fraught relationship with her father, her battle with alcoholism and the tragic death of her college sweetheart (the biographers convincingly argue that had the death never occurred, Ivins never would have become famous).

Despite her many projects, a never-completed longer book project—ostensibly a history of Texas politics—seems to haunt her legacy. Certainly the number of discarded book projects by American authors could itself fill the Library of Congress several times over, but, in Ivins' case, one wonders what she might have done with the big Texas book, so conceptually different from her shorter Dubya books and the books of her collected essays. Would she have cast aside her trademark wit for a more exploratory voice? How would it have shaped Texas politics, not to mention Ivins' own reputation as a historian, and not only a pundit? Did the project, unfinished and barely begun (though she'd been in talks with publishers about it over several years), haunt her at the end of her life? We don't know because it's a topic the biographers give only fleeting attention. True to form, Ivins had black T-shirts printed with the phrase: "Don't Ask About the Book," an order her biographers continue to follow, though by doing so they shortchange their own book.

Still, most touchingly apparent here is that Ivins is sorely missed. Since her death in early 2007, she's left a gaping hole for readers, friends and colleagues, even for foes like Rush Limbaugh (for whom she was one of the original "feminazis"). What she would have made of Sarah Palin, we can probably imagine—though our imaginations will, invariably, fall short of hers.

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