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"Either we figure out how to keep corporate cash out of the political system or we lose the democracy."

Reflecting on the late Molly Ivins, her new bio and her crusade against corporatized America 

She told you so

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN GOLUB

"A populist is someone who is for the people and against the powerful, and so a populist is generally the same as a liberal—except we tend to have more fun." —Molly Ivins (1944-2007)

Many states, including my home state of North Carolina, maintain Halls of Fame for journalists. I know Texas has one, because it recently inducted my friend Sarah Greene, longtime editor and publisher of the Gilmer Mirror. Turbulent, incorrigible Texas has long been a proving ground for journalists of distinction. In the second half of the 20th century, none were more important than Bill Moyers, a native of Marshall, a few Texas miles across the county line from Gilmer, and my old Columbia classmate Molly Ivins, born in Houston but seasoned in Austin and Dallas/ Fort Worth. Ivins died of cancer in 2007, at the peak of her personal renown but not before the succession of economic, cultural and technological shock waves that threaten her profession with extinction. In November 2006, Molly herself gave a speech in Austin titled "The future of journalism, slow death or suicide?"

What will future generations make of our Halls of Fame, to them not much different from shrines to honor great cowboys or buffalo hunters, filled with images of antique Americans who once worked for omnipotent entities called newspapers, who recorded their thoughts with odd Stone Age gadgets called typewriters, now vanished but for a few forlorn specimens in attics and museums? Will we tear down these pressroom pantheons as incomprehensible anachronisms, or open new wings dedicated to prominent bloggers and media personalities, and soldier on as if only the technology has changed? These are questions whose time has come. Molly Ivins has been gone for three years now. Things have slipped fast since her funeral. Even Molly, with her keen nose for mendacity, might be amazed by the ethical dry rot that's eating away at the business of news.

Without the once-fearless Washington Post, Watergate might never have entered the national vocabulary. But on the last day of 2009, the Post published an outsourced piece on deficit reduction from the start-up Fiscal Times—with no hint that the Times is underwritten by billionaire investment banker Peter G. Peterson, a dedicated archenemy of liberal economics. Economist Dean Baker, writing on the Web site Politico.com, echoed the sentiments of many media observers when he announced "the unfortunate demise of The Washington Post as a serious newspaper."

The same week, CBS Vice President Paul Friedman, the most powerful news executive to emerge from our class of 1967 at Columbia, acknowledged publicly that paying for interviews, in many cases with fulsome tabloid creatures like the White House gate-crashers, is now common practice for network news shows. "It's out of the bottle," he admitted sadly.

Ivins would have written scathing, contemptuous columns if these news items had appeared on her watch. But stories that shocked most of us three years ago shock no one today. And along with these latest versions of journalism's pay-to-play scandals, Molly herself is a news item this winter, perhaps for the last time. In the age of new media there's a rapid turnover, even for legends. Reporters and columnists have never attracted many biographers—a great blessing, as most of them would see it—and in their clouded future they seem unlikely to attract many more. Yet there under my Christmas tree, hot off the presses, was Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, a biography authored by another pair of Texans, Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith.

Minutaglio is a journalism professor in Austin and a biographer of George W. Bush; Smith is Ivins' onetime researcher and personal assistant. Their collaboration isn't everything that it could be, but this is not a book review I'm attempting. The biography is lively and certainly pro-Ivins, and generous with good stories I haven't heard. Where Minutaglio and Smith go wrong, it seems to me, is where so much is going wrong in America, in media and politics, in publishing, in what remains of our public discourse.

The irrepressible Ivins was a force of nature: of all the women I've known, maybe the one least in need of chivalrous gentlemen to protect her and take her part. But the dead, you know, are scandalously defenseless. Their survivors can't even sue for defamation. The authors' intention, in this case, was to perpetuate a legend. Molly was—she consciously became—a great character. God, to her, was a large, unreliable friend named Fred. There's no doubt that the obstreperous cowgirl image she perfected was a tremendous asset in comically sexist Texas, as well as in the national media where there was no one remotely like her. Quite possibly there were tragic, or at least very painful, subtexts in her private life. Yet in spite of her extended, agonizing illness and death, her life was not a soap opera, not a tearjerker, not a case study of a strong woman's losing her battle with the bottle. If this book were a novel, it would be Under the Volcano. This is a serious error of emphasis. Seventeen and a half million Americans abuse alcohol. Only one could write like Molly Ivins.

Melodrama, moralizing and awkward intimacies are faults I find in most contemporary biography. But a responsible account of a writer's life, especially a journalist's life in what appears to be the twilight of journalism, requires a real depth of historical and intellectual context. We need to know what she wrote and what she read, not what she drank; what she thought, not whom she may or may not have slept with. To some extent, these biographers were blinded by the size of Ivins' personality—and perhaps subconsciously resentful of it, too. In this age of incontinent, psychopathic voyeurism, their sins against her privacy are not grievous, yet they grate.

I guess Molly is the first of my contemporaries to be dissected for biography. It doesn't surprise me that I'm so incurious about the sex life, substance abuse or rude behavior of a person I actually knew. (Not that I'm intolerant of rude behavior; I honor Molly's famous mooning of the Ku Klux Klan as a landmark of subjective journalism.)

Ivins was the rare print journalist who achieved measurable celebrity, and Minutaglio and Smith miss the mark because they try too earnestly to measure it. They were impressed by the famous people Molly knew, by her television appearances ("the highest-rated TV show in America") and a movie that was supposed to be made about her life. They don't distance themselves sufficiently from a public so besotted with celebrity—with personality—that it no longer distinguishes between actual achievement and the weightless notoriety of camera-seeking parasites who populate the tabloid universe. A serious writer, especially one who trades in political and cultural commentary, functions in a universe with different values. No matter how large or unique the personality, it's only the writer's contribution that signifies, that could ever justify a biography. It's her message.

Molly Ivins was a journalist who mattered, not because of what she was or seemed to be but because of what she wrote. Hers was a message and a philosophy that never wavered, and its importance was never overlooked by those who appreciated her most. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist who writes a column for The New York Times, where Molly was a miserable misfit, struck the right note exactly at the time of her death. "Obituaries that mostly stressed her satirical gifts missed the main point," Krugman wrote. "Her satire was only the means to an end: holding the powerful accountable."

"Either we figure out how to keep corporate cash out of the political system or we lose the democracy."
—Ivins in 2006

The cornerstone of a lifelong commitment to holding power accountable was her crusade against dollar democracy, a mission that became a magnificent obsession.  From her experience covering the Texas legislature, no one knew better than Ivins that money—dirty money, funny money, way too much money—clings like the most stubborn form of filth to every exposed surface of this failing political system. In words that could not be mistaken for anyone else's, she warned us, "Oligarchy is eating our ass, our dreams, our country, our heritage, our democracy, our justice and our tax code." Six months before she died, Ivins summed it up, "Either we figure out how to keep corporate cash out of the political system or we lose the democracy."

That was her message, a message never less urgent than "The British are coming," yet so much slower to seize the attention of imperiled Americans. And now, suddenly, on the third anniversary of her death, we're more imperiled than ever. The rapid decline of her profession would have been a mild sorrow for Ivins compared with the agony of watching a Supreme Court majority grant virtual carte blanche to the corporate money machine whose defeat was her fondest dream. The Court's activist, ideological decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission overturned decades of precedent and negated most of the legislative firewall that protected the electoral process from hungry lobbies with unlimited cash. It was a stunning defeat for campaign reform, "a major victory," in the words of President Obama, "for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." What wouldn't have surprised the late Molly Ivins is that three of the five justices who forged this travesty were appointed to the Court by the Presidents Bush, father and son, to whom she dedicated at least a thousand pages of inspired ridicule.

"I have a suggestion for a withdrawal deadline. Let's leave Iraq before we've killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein did."
—Ivins in 2003

As the daughter of a Houston oil executive, she understood as well as anyone that George Bush's invasion of oil-saturated Iraq had far more to do with energy-industry aspirations—with money—than with terrorism or 9/11. Paul Krugman's eulogy also praised her for insisting from Day One (while most of his august colleagues acquiesced or equivocated) that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic blunder launched with calculated deceit. We might have numbered a dozen or more, the much-maligned Cassandras of the press who predicted doom from the outset, but Molly Ivins was the only one syndicated in 350 papers. "I have a suggestion for a withdrawal deadline," she wrote in 2003. "Let's leave Iraq before we've killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein did."

America's failures are all of a piece, she reminded us: The lives of 300 million people are largely determined by a tiny minority of cynical, insatiable capitalists who can purchase politicians out of petty cash. Americans rattle on about freedom, but we're no better than deluded serfs if a political system designed to limit the plutocrats' power becomes the tool they use to maintain it. It was a message she repeated, column after column, for 20 years and more. Its fatal truth was never more evident than in 2009, when the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies, mobilizing idiot tea-baggers and spending more than a million dollars a day to spread disinformation, succeeded in emasculating congressional health care reform. The "health sector" spent nearly half a billion dollars lobbying Congress last year; the big drug companies alone spent $230 million. And in the other corner, heads hanging, the multitude of Americans too poor to buy health insurance or pay their doctor bills. Lobbying Congress was a $3.5 billion industry in 2009, an all-time record.  

"Americans are not getting screwed by the Republican Party," Ivins wrote in one of her very last columns. "They're getting screwed by the large corporations that bought and own the Republican Party."

Another story she did not live to cover was the sacking of Wall Steet by bankers who destroyed the financial and real estate industries with reckless speculation, derailed the stock markets and evaporated the wealth of the humble and cautious, then accepted a taxpayer bailout and used our money to award themselves seven-figure bonuses. Primitive Texans like Sam Houston and Judge Roy Bean would have hanged them all; only Molly Ivins could have fashioned a verbal harpoon sharp enough to penetrate their intergalactic arrogance. Where, in this pathetically one-sided class war, were the elected officials who allegedly serve the majority and live off the taxpayers' money? In the Senate, 10 Democrats helped Republicans slip through an estate-tax break that netted an estimated $91 billion for the nation's richest two-tenths of 1 percent. An attempt by the White House to reduce tax deductions for the rich was defeated 94-3 in the same Democratic Senate.

It will take a whole lot more than Jesus Christ, or even Molly Ivins, to drive the money changers from the temple of American democracy. The corporate plutocracy is a private club most politicians yearn to serve, and to join, if they can. (So do clueless millions with virtually no hope of entry, which explains our thriving lotteries, casinos and tea parties.) Ivins, born to the club, only ever wanted out. She was the quintessential class traitor, a bright girl who recognized that her Republican parents were stereotypes she did not wish to perpetuate. Minutaglio and Smith argue unconvincingly that her political trajectory might have been altered by her first love, an Ayn Rand-quoting Yale boy who died in a freak accident when they were undergraduates. Would he have kept her silent, barefoot—by the swimming pool—and pregnant? Not the Molly Ivins I encountered at Columbia, just two years after the young man's death.

Some people complained that it wasn't natural, the way she talked and sometimes wrote—cussin' and droppin' all those g's and all—unnatural for a River Oaks girl who went to Smith College and studied in France. It was a choice, I think, dictated by the testosterone-soaked legislative battlefields she covered for the Texas Observer. It was a style that felt comfortable among the kind of people she enjoyed. Mostly it was a symbolic departure from family assumptions and a declaration of her populist faith. "I'm not a communist or a socialist," she wrote. "I guess I'm a left-libertarian and a populist, and I believe in the Bill of Rights the way some folks believe in the Bible."

In spite of the visible success that impressed her biographers, Ivins paid a price for courage and class apostasy. While she staked out a populist position and held her ground, the Reaganized nation and the media drifted steadily to the right, to the point where a plain-speaking progressive of her stripe was often treated like Emma Goldman or Jane Fonda on the rebound from Hanoi. "The Red Rose of Texas" was one of the kinder nicknames her enemies bestowed. The newspaper establishment, including the Pulitzer Prize boards based at our own journalism school, never chose to embrace Molly Ivins. She never won a Pulitzer for commentary, not even when some of the people on the prize boards knew she was dying of cancer. In one of the last years when she was nominated, the prize was awarded to a man who critiqued automobiles. Minutaglio and Smith reveal something I never knew: that Ivins was also turned down—twice—for the prestigious Nieman Fellowships at Harvard.

It was a pattern of marginalization that might have stung to some extent, though she wasn't one to brood over slights. The engine that drives the newspaper establishment with its prizes and caste system is The New York Times, which gave Molly nothing but grief when she worked there, characteristically boiling her expansive style down to drab Times vulgate and exiling her to the Denver bureau and to Manhattan's City Hall. Sadder yet, the Times never seemed to forgive her for failing to assimilate. One of its book reviewers dismissed Shrub, her caustic profile of George W. Bush, as "a glorified clip job" and described Molly as "the East Coast's favorite Texas journalist."

Its obituary, not unkind, nevertheless dignified a questionable charge of plagiarism that she faced in the '90s. Perhaps the Times' worst posthumous insult was assigning the review of her biography to Lloyd Grove, best known as a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News. (To our generation, Ivins' and mine, "celebrity journalism" was pure oxymoron, as "Fox News" is today.) Though his judgment carries no authority, Grove was probably correct in doubting that her biographers made their case for Ivins as "one of the best-known and most influential journalists in American history," though their failure was no fault of hers.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN GOLUB

Ivins towered over all these people, not because she stood well over 6 feet tall in her cowboy boots, but because of what she believed in. Being dead right and standing up for it, come what may, is a thing that lasts as long as there's someone who remembers. Everything else changes quickly. The Pulitzer Prizes for journalism are nearly obsolete because dead and dying newspapers litter the information highway like the hapless armadillos of East Texas, and few of the survivors can afford the kind of work the prizes were intended to honor. I understand that newspaper journalists no longer apply for Nieman Fellowships; they're all afraid their jobs or employers will be gone when they finish their year in Cambridge. Even The New York Times is shedding jobs and advertisers. Radio and cable TV have polarized and trivialized subjective journalism to the level of professional wrestling, with teams of red-faced partisans faking passion and hostility. Slower Americans are duped into thinking that major issues are about Right and Left—a struggle between conflicting but coherent points of view—when in fact most of them are about right and wrong, true or false, smart or stupid.

Even populism, Molly Ivins' religion, has been co-opted by reactionaries. Instead of distrusting big concentrations of money, tea-party populists distrust big concentrations of intellect and education (this according to conservative columnist David Brooks), all the while marching in unacknowledged lockstep with the corporate agenda. A major political party is represented on national television by an unindicted cutthroat like Karl Rove or a nugatory nitwit like Sarah Palin, and no one blinks. (With my own eyes I've seen a sleeveless, gormless primate identified as Larry the Cable Guy critique Nancy Pelosi on Fox News, in prime time.) With education losing ground at every level, as liberals and conservatives generally agree, and information inseparable from entertainment, it can't be long before the money changers fool most of the people most of the time. Ivins, always entertaining, was once an effective antidote to the Great Dumbing Down. I don't see anyone filling the big old boots she left behind. She stood tall for the people, even if most of the people she stood for barely noticed.

  • "Either we figure out how to keep corporate cash out of the political system or we lose the democracy."

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