Sharpest skewer at a Texas barbecue

Catching Up With ... Molly Ivins

Author cooks up piquant morsels of political humor

October 19, 2003|By Tom Puleo | Tom Puleo,The Hartford Courant

In the introduction to her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? the author wryly laments that God gave guys like I.F. Stone, George Orwell and Albert Camus some pretty good material to write about -- namely fascism, communism, colonialism and McCarthyism.

"All I got was Lubbock," she quipped about her small Texas hometown.

"I suppose I could claim I did the best with what I had. Lord knows, Texas politics is a rich vein. Twenty-five years of reporting on the place and I still can't account for the lunatic quality of exaggeration, of being slightly larger than life, in a pie-eyed way, that afflicts the entire state."

That was 1991. A dozen years later, with the arrival of President George W. Bush, it turns out that history may have dealt Ivins the best hand of all.

She is the perfect foil for the privileged Bush, the New Eng-land preppie and former cheerleader at Andover who has never quite pulled off the Crawford cowboy look and can still appear uncomfortable in his latest job, at least when he wanders away from the TelePrompTer.

If Bush, as they say in Texas, is all hat and no cattle, then the denim-wearin', boots-kicked-up Ivins is all rifle and falling skeet. She's the real event in a world starving for authenticity.

It's all on display in her second book on the man she calls "Dubya" and "Shrub."

Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America (Random House, $24.95) is co-authored by Lou Dubose, a Texas guy, who, like Ivins, has spent decades chronicling the state's outsized brand of politics. Bushwhacked puts a human face on the suffering of some small-fish Americans while drawing a straight line to the Bush administration in Washington and to what Ivins calls its drug-like addiction to big corporate donors.

Speaking from Boston, where she was on a book promotion tour, Ivins said she and Dubose chose the human-face approach because it's a type of reporting that has become lost in today's personality-obsessed journalism.

"I guess I'm in some danger of becoming a grumpy old fart," Ivins said. "But in covering all the polls, fund-raising, consulting, the horse race and all this garbage, we have completely forgotten the whole point: that this is about peoples' lives."

Living examples

In one particularly stark chapter, Ivins and Dubose tell the story of women toiling to the point of injury in Mississippi Delta catfish houses. Meanwhile, Bush appointees, such as the then-solicitor of the U.S. Department of Labor, Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), successfully defeat new regulations designed to protect the backs, shoulders and wrists of working folks.

Ivins also describes how Bush as Texas governor frittered away a rare $6 billion surplus by enacting tax cuts in a state already known for low taxes and no income tax. All so he could run for president, Ivins contends, by claiming he'd passed the largest tax break in the history of the state of Texas.

Sound familiar? Ivins argues persuasively that Bush the president has simply taken his Bush the governor record national, pushing anew policies that are bad for education, the environment and the average citizen.

"Public policy stamped MADE IN TEXAS is like Hun-garian wine," Ivins writes in one of her customary blunt observations. "It does not travel well."

Ivins and Dubose all but predicted Bush's presidency in their previous book, Shrub: The Short But Happy Life of George W. Bush, which chronicles Bush's record in Texas.

"Lou and I are really almost smug, disgustingly smug, about the predictive value of Shrub," Ivins said. "We have pretty much seen what we expected. You shouldn't be surprised, if you check the DNA in the last book."

Ivins said there was no way of predicting how big foreign policy would become for Bush.

"The sense that we're under attack is very real," she said. "The question is: 'How do we pursue these guys?' We need cooperation from other countries and we have alienated so many of them."

A talent for quips

Raised during the civil rights era in a conservative East Texas family, Ivins was something of a rebel -- a self-described spunky liberal who felt awkward at 6 feet tall -- "a St. Bernard among greyhounds" and "the Too Tall Jones of my time."

But she's long been known as one of the shrewdest observers of American politics, a populist with Lyndon Johnson's ear for folksy, sometimes vulgar, Texas wisdom. Her syndicated column, which she writes from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, appears in more than 300 papers nationwide (including The Sun).

Ivins also has Mark Twain's gift for exaggeration in the service of truth. In the way a political cartoon can sometimes ring truer than a hyper-balanced newspaper article, Ivins has a way of stripping complex issues and policies to their essence. There's no reading between the lines with Ivins.

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