MOLLY IVINS CAN'T SAY THAT, CAN SHE? By Molly Ivins. Random House. 284 pages. $23. AS MOLLY Ivins tells the story, she had just been fired by the New York Times for describing a chicken-killing contest as a "gang-pluck," when she got a call from the Dallas Times-Herald.
"Come home, and we will let you write about whatever you want to, and say whatever you want to," was the offer, the Texas journalist recalls in her first book, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" She did. More surprisingly, they did, and continue to do so. This story, as recountLauraLippmaned in her introduction to this collection of magazine articles, tells you a lot about Molly Ivins. It's funny, for one thing, and a Molly Ivins story is almost always funny. She also has told it before, and Ivins, as she cheerfully admits, reuses her best stories and one-liners. ("I like to think of this as ecological journalism. I recycle.")
The story also plays a little loose with the facts, according to versions Ivins herself has given in interviews. Not inaccurate, mind you. It just leaves out the part that Ivins was reassigned to New York after the "gang-pluck," a term that never appeared in the paper, and that she left the Times only after deciding her career was at a dead-end.
Who cares? I don't, not much. When I was a reporter in Texas, I read Molly Ivins for the folklore, not the facts. She knows all the best stories about Texas politics. The best include:
* In 1971, the Texas House passed a resolution honoring Albert DeSalvo for his efforts in population control. DeSalvo was better known as the "Boston Strangler;" the bill was introduced April 1 by a liberal trying to make a point about the legislature's chronic inattention to detail.
* In the 1986 Democratic primary, an opponent accused Gov. Mark White of being "one of the first nerds in Texas," because White had no extracurricular activities listed in his high school yearbook. White's first defense -- his involvement in after-school shindigs at the Baptist church -- did not immediately quell the nerd rumors.
* Four years later, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Rains issued his 10-point program for education, designed to fix the state's troubled schools. His points were numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
Ivins is an unabashed liberal, which means she likes a few Texas politicians and almost no national ones. President Bush, a pseudo-Texan, fares worse than anyone. "God knows, he started with enough advantages of birth, talent, and education, but somehow as he has gotten older, he seems to become less and less," she writes at one point. That's the kinder, gentler version of another Ivins' line: "Calling George Bush shallow is like calling a dwarf short."
Some cavils: Recycling aside, the line about something strange being akin to finding Castro in the refrigerator should be thrown away. And, in an essay called "Magnolias and Moonshine," Ivins keeps wandering away from a valid point -- the national press' ignorance about the South -- to tell stories that reinforce the stereotypes she decries.
Ultimately, Ivins gets to have it both ways. She's a feminist who loves football and country music, an anti-intellectual who graduated from Smith College. (A recent column for Mother Jones, not included in this anthology, takes on scholar Camile Paglia. Ivins does it in down-home style, but her intellect seeps through. You've got to know what you're talking about to call Rousseau "that fathead.")
In interest of full disclosure, I should mention I met Ivins once on the Atlanta subway, during the Democratic National Convention. told her I worked for the Hearst newspaper in San Antonio (the other is owned by Rupert Murdoch) and she said: "San Antonio? You know what they say about San Antonio? It's the largest city in Texas without a daily newspaper."
She would have told it funnier, but you get the point.
Having escaped Texas, Laura Lippman is now a reporter for The Evening Sun.