Columnist was font of liberal outrage, hilarity for 30 years

Molly Ivins 1944-2007

February 01, 2007|By Elaine Woo | Elaine Woo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Molly Ivins, the irrepressibly irreverent political humorist and syndicated columnist who skewered legislators, governors and presidents, especially those from her beloved Texas, died yesterday at her home in Austin after a long battle with cancer. She was 62.

Ms. Ivins learned in 1999 that she had a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. After overcoming two recurrences, she became ill again last year as the disease spread through her body. Her death was announced by the Texas Observer, where she began her career 30 years ago.

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called "an old-fashioned newspaper campaign" against President Bush's plan to escalate the Iraq war. "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders," she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. "And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war."

At a tribute dinner in October that raised $400,000 for the Observer, Ms. Ivins drew a standing ovation when Lewis Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper's magazine, said: "She reminds us that dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors."

Ms. Ivins established herself as a font of liberal outrage and hilarity during the 1970s, when she was an editor and writer at the Texas Observer. She went on to write for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her syndicated column often appeared in The Sun.

She also was the best-selling author of several books, including Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? and two sassily titled volumes on President George W. Bush, co-written with Lou Dubose: Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America.

Some of her work was deeply reflective or affectionate, such as her essays about Ann Richards, the sharp-witted former Texas governor who died in 2006; Barbara Jordan, the late African-American member of Congress remembered for her eloquence during the Nixon impeachment debates; and an anonymous visitor to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

She was best known, however, for her mastery of what one critic called the "well-informed potshot," which she generally reserved for conservative figures such as President Bush (aside from "Shrub" and "Dubya" she called him "President Billy Bob Forehead"), Arnold Schwarzenegger ("a condom filled with walnuts") and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh (whose bite was "akin to being gummed by a newt - it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle").

Liberals such as Bill Clinton did not escape her arrows. Writing at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Ms. Ivins described the 42nd president as "weaker than bus-station chili."

Her favorite target, however, was the Texas Legislature, which she referred to as "the Lege" (pronounced like ledge). Describing knock-down, drag-out brawls, flagrant bias and absurd laws, she wrote of its shortcomings with gusto and horror, declaring it "the finest free entertainment in Texas. Better than the zoo. Better than the circus."

PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer once said Ms. Ivins' targets "are the hides and egos of just about everybody in the politics and gutters of today. Her language is that smooth whiplash thing called Texan Sharp of which Molly is a laureate."

Pundits in the opposite political camp respected her, such as conservative columnist Cal Thomas. He once told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Ms. Ivins "makes us pay attention. I think she argues her position very well. Obviously, she is wrong all the time, but she'd say the same about me."

Throughout her career, she regularly used words that most family papers would not print. She was so staunch a believer in freedom of expression that she visited one ACLU chapter a month and did not charge a speaking fee, a practice that stemmed from a promise she made in 1989 to a dying friend who had been a champion of the First Amendment.

She sometimes wrote about her battle with inflammatory breast cancer, an uncommon form of the disease known to progress rapidly. Ms. Ivins called it "massive amounts of no fun" but was unsentimental about its many indignities. She called herself "a happy, flat-chested woman" and insisted that being forced to confront mortality had not improved her character.

In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with King Juan Carlos of Spain and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. She described her reaction to the honor in typical Ivins' twang: It had left her "whomperjawed."

Elaine Woo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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