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Columnist Molly Ivins, 62; Poked Fun at the Powerful

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

Molly Ivins, 62, an unabashedly liberal columnist and best-selling author whose wicked wit and good ol' girl-style Texas humor regularly skewered conservative politicians and targeted the pomposities of elected officials regardless of political stripe, died Jan. 31 at her home in Austin of cancer.

More than 400 newspapers subscribed to her nationally syndicated column, which had its base in Texas but dealt more often than not with national issues, particularly after former Texas governor George W. Bush ascended to the White House. Her books included "Nothin' but Good Times Ahead" (1993), "You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years" (1998), "Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" (2000), "Bushwhacked" (2003) and "Who Let the Dogs In?" (2004).

Six feet tall, with a mane of red hair when she was younger, Ms. Ivins was large even in a place that has known its share of outsize personalities. With an earthy laugh and the husky, drawling voice of a barroom bawd, she was usually the focal point of any gathering of folks who enjoyed telling tales and trading political gossip.

During her days as editor of the Texas Observer, the feisty fortnightly voice of long-suffering Texas liberals, a favorite place was out back at Austin's legendary Scholzgarten, where pitchers of cold beer helped lubricate the conversation. She loved the game of politics and the yeasty mix of egos, enthusiasms and downright weirdness she was sure to encounter, even when she was dismayed by the outcome.

Hobnobbing with politicos, she may have missed deadlines while her no-nonsense Observer co-editor, Kaye Northcott, was trying to get the political biweekly put to bed, but she would invariably come back with great stories. In later years, when the Observer nearly succumbed to its perennially precarious financial situation and Ms. Ivins was making a bit more than the $12,000-annual salary the publication paid her, she helped put it on sound financial footing.

In the 1980s, an old friend of Ms. Ivins's, political humorist John Henry Faulk, did a standup comedy bit built around the notion that there would come a time in Texas when Republicans would be so scarce that the remaining few would be kept in a special preserve, perhaps in a park where people could drive through and observe them as an endangered species.

Faulk was a better storyteller than prognosticator, but for Ms. Ivins, the columnist, the total triumph of conservative Republicanism in Texas -- not to mention Republican ascendancy in Washington -- was a fortuitous development. She was funnier, more caustic, when her old friend Ann Richards was no longer Texas governor. Her humor, and her outrage, had more bite when she had Bush to kick around rather than Bill Clinton.

Ms. Ivins warned her readers that Bush in the White House would "Texanise" the nation, a prospect she found dismaying. She loved Texas, but that did not blind her to what she considered its maddening provincialism and its hideous shortcomings.

"I only aim at the powerful," she once wrote. "When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar."

Mary Tyler "Molly" Ivins was born Aug. 30, 1944, in Monterey, Calif., while her father was serving as a Navy officer in the Pacific. He was a Houston corporate lawyer in civilian life, and the family moved back there when he was discharged.

Both her parents were Republicans, but she rebelled early. Her liberal bent sprang from the same root that nurtures most Southern liberals: race. "Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything," she wrote.

Ms. Ivins, a voracious reader from an early age, graduated in 1966 from Smith College, the alma mater of her mother and grandmother. She also attended the Institute for Political Science in Paris.

Journalism beckoned because it combined two of her passions, writing and politics. She enrolled at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism because, she told Salon in a 2000 interview, "in those days if you were a female, unless you had an extra credential, your chances of getting hired, and then getting a good assignment, were really quite slim. In those days, if newspapers hired women at all they would send you to what they called the snake pit, which is what they called the women's department, the women's pages, which is where you'd spend the rest of your life writing about food, fluff and fashion."

She received a master's degree from Columbia in 1967 and took a job as a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, covering, in her words, "the uproar of the late '60s -- the antiwar movement, black riots, angry women. It was a wonderful time."

She went home to take over the Texas Observer in 1970. Founded by Ronnie Dugger in 1954, the Observer liberated the distinctive Ivins voice.

Hanging out in the marbled halls and lawmaker offices at the state Capitol and poking her nose into small-town courthouses and sheriff's offices across the vast and variegated state, she acquired a reputation among visiting journalists as the quintessential Texan. She became the colorful, eminently quotable expert on all things Lone Star, including "the Lege," short for legislature, "the finest free entertainment in Texas." It was a role she took to naturally, although her rustic metaphors occasionally teetered toward Texas caricature.

In 1976, the New York Times hired Ms. Ivins, ultimately to the mutual regret of both. First as a reporter covering politics in New York City and Albany and then as the paper's Rocky Mountain bureau chief in Denver, she had trouble corseting her distinctive style and ebullient personality.

"The Times in those days was concerned that their writing was dull," Adam Clymer, a former Times reporter, said in the Salon interview. "They had a theory that they could hire some great writer from some place or other, and then just polish them, just sand them down a little, and they'd be fine at the Times. Molly was one of the most spectacular failures of that theory. I mean, Molly doesn't sand down."

In 1982, after she used a colorful colloquialism to described a local chicken-killing festival, the Times and Ms. Ivins recognized that it was time to part ways. Moving back to Texas, she became a columnist with the Dallas Times Herald, free to write about anything she wanted to. Ten years later, when the afternoon Times Herald succumbed to a newspaper war with the Dallas Morning News, she jumped to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writing her widely syndicated column from Austin, 200 miles to the south.

Although she had a legion of devoted readers across the country, she regularly piqued readers' ire; canceled subscriptions were sometimes the result. On occasion, newspapers dropped her from their roster of columnists, usually because they tired of having to respond to readers she upset.

In 1995, she gave her critics a handy excuse when she admitted to having borrowed without attribution from a book by the writer Florence King for a Mother Jones article she wrote on life in the South. She apologized to King, and her column continued.

Ms. Ivins published her first book, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" just as the Times Herald was dying. "It was a ridiculous point in my life where I was broke, unemployed and on the New York Times bestseller list," she told Salon in 2000. She also wrote for the Atlantic, the Nation, Mother Jones, Esquire and numerous other publications.

Among her honors over the years, she was particularly proud of the fact that the Minneapolis police force named its mascot pig after her and that she once was banned from the campus of Texas A&M University.

She continued to write her column and to make public appearances until shortly before her death. In her Jan. 11 column, she launched what she called an "old-fashioned newspaper crusade" against President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. The trademark humor had drained away.

"We are the people who run this country," she wrote. "We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, 'Stop it, now!' "

Survivors include a brother and sister.

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