Molly Ivins, the best and most beloved little ass-kickin' columnist in Texas, died Wednesday of cancer at the age of 62. With her column syndicated to 350 newspapers, Ivins went from local columnist for the Texas Observer to national household name. Her pointed and often hilarious provocations to the powers that be made her an icon of liberalism during an era when "liberal" had become an insult only to be used with such descriptives as "pussyfooting," "knee-jerk" and "dewy-eyed."
But Ivins was none of these things. While her tossed-off Texanisms like "when pigs fly" and "enough to gag a maggot" sweetened her rhetoric, she tended to go for the jugular and attack with rare tenacity politicians on both sides of the aisle. Of President Reagan, she once told the Progressive: "I have been collecting euphemisms used on television to suggest that our only president is so dumb that if you put his brains in a bee, it would fly backwards." For Bush Jr., she reserved her utmost scorn -- compiling two books -- "Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" and "Bushwhacked" -- chock full of famous missteps and malapropisms from the leader of the most powerful nation in the world.
After six years of disastrous leadership on the right, other liberal pundits might have been tempted to tone down criticism of the Democrats, but Ivins took her job as soothsayer too seriously to play politics. Last year, she lambasted Sen. Hillary Clinton's then-rumored presidential aspirations with venomous acuity: "I'd like to make it clear to the people who run the Democratic Party that I will not support Hillary Clinton for president," she began. "Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq ... Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges."
When I interviewed her six years ago at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the thing that struck me was how unwavering she was in her sense of right and wrong. Despite maintaining that Paula Jones had no case, she'd nevertheless gone after those who derided Jones' working-class trappings. "Let us just say that our opinion of the people who saw fit to make fun of her and look down upon her because she wears blue eye shadow and angora sweaters has not changed. I have a lot of friends who live in trailers."
The other thing that struck me was how much of herself she had given to her job. She was a piece of work: The swagger of her humor, the incisiveness of her opinions and the breadth of her knowledge were present in each multiparagraph, perfectly articulate response, delivered with a dry, raspy drawl between sucks on a cigarette. Beyond her writing, she had made herself into the larger-than-life character necessary for the machinations of modern-day media.
But it was her answer to a question about how she fell in love with politics that showed how an ordinary young woman had transformed herself into an unflappable voice of justice. Describing her early activism on behalf of the "direly unsophisticated" civil rights movement in east Texas, she told me: "The enduring lesson I got from the civil rights movement was that when people, just plain ordinary people, get together and move for change, they can be heard. Not great courageous heroes. My God, I was scared to death. It was always hot and we were always scared. I wet my pants every time I got arrested."