The Mouth of Texas
A WHISKEY DRINKING SIX-FOOTER WHO describes herself as a "dripping-fangs liberal," Dallas Times Herald columnist Molly Ivins aimed a particularly barbed insult at a local Republican Congressman in 1983. Appalled by what she perceived as the stupidity of Rep. Jim Collins's remark that the energy crisis could be avoided "if we didn't use all that gas on school busing," she wrote, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day."
Convinced that this time Texas's most popular columnist had gone too far, some members of the Dallas business community withdrew their ads from the Herald for about two weeks. But if the boycotters thought that would force the paper to crack down on Ivins, they had it all wrong. Instead the Herald plastered the city with billboards that spoofed the set-to in bold letters, asking, MOLLY IVINS CAN'T SAY THAT, CAN SHE?
Yes, she can. And anything else she wants. Caustic and savagely witty the 47-year-old Houston native thrives on controversy, and nothing makes her happier than riling a Republican. Her column appears in 12 papers outside Dallas, and her collection of columns (which takes its title from the infamous billboards) has made it to The New York Times best-seller list. Among her fans is Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who pronounces her book "more fun than riding a mechanical bull and almost as dangerous."
The baroque nature of Texas politics is Ivins's stock-in-trade. The state "is a reality check for the rest of the nation," she says. "Texans can see right through the bulls—people in other parts of the country might buy.
A favorite target is Texan-come-lately George Bush, whom she has dubbed Wienie One. She scoffs at his diction (his "thing thing."" as she calls it) and his gestures ("dyslexic"), as well as his political priorities. Says Ivins: "Bush spends more money on military bands than he does on Head Start. . . . Personally, I think he's further evidence that the Great Scriptwriter in the sky has an overdeveloped sense of irony."
But no one is off-limits, even in these times of PC sensitivity. "If we can't call a borderline moron who happens to be black a borderline moron," says Ivins, "then things have gone too far."
Ivins's columns frequently draw angry letters, which she keeps in a large box on her desk at the paper's Austin bureau and deals with according to a quirky personal protocol. "I never read unsigned hate mail," she says. ""On even-numbered days, I read the other letters seriously and try to figure if there's some way I could have gotten through to those people. On odd-numbered days, I say, 'If they can't take a joke, f—em.' "
According to Ivins, gun control, abortion and crime are the topics that set off most correspondents. A pro-choice feminist, she takes an unorthodox position on guns. "I'm not really antigun," she says. "It's just that I'm pro-knife. Knives have definite advantages over guns: You have to be really physically fit to use a knife, since you have to run out there and catch somebody before you slab 'em. Plus, nobody ever got killed cleaning a knife."
An unpretentious sort with an easy laugh, Ivins lives with her two cats in an airy hillside home in South Austin, which she describes as "a great place to buy auto parts." Never married, she terms her love life "desperately boring." (In her book she declares, "I like men who like whiskey and women—in fact, I like men who like whiskey and women too much.") An outdoorswoman who loves canoeing, she has an enormous and eclectic circle of friends—"everything from wealthy people to starving artists," as she puts it. "You know how some people collect china?" says Kaye Northcott, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Well, Molly collects people."
Raised as the second of three children in the wealthy, conservative Houston suburb of River Oaks, Ivins allows that she has "fallen pretty far from the tree." Her father, Jim, was general counsel to Tenneco and a staunch Republican; mother Margo was a steel magnolia. Galvanized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Ivins spent a year at the Institute of Political Science in Paris after earning her B.A. at Smith and her master's in journalism at Columbia.
After brief stints with the Houston Chronicle and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Ivins went to Austin in 1970 to work for an ultraliberal weekly called The Texas Observer, where she covered the state legislature ("the lege," as she calls it) with a cold-eyed glee unprecedented in Texas journalism. In 1976 she accepted an offer from The New York Times—and soon regretted it. Miserable covering New York state and city government, she took a job as the paper's Denver-based Rocky Mountain bureau chief in 1977. Three years later, says Ivins, "I got fired for describing a community chicken-killing festival as a gang pluck."
At the Times Herald, Ivins is given more leeway—perhaps because her readers are so loyal. "She's our most valuable asset," says her editor, Lee Cullum. "When she goes on vacation, even though we print the fact ahead of time, the phones ring off I he wall. Some people even threaten to cancel their subscriptions."
So the paper is delighted to have Ivins back from a one-year leave she took to write a portrait of Texas as reflected in its legislature. Or at least that's what she was supposed to be doing. "All I accomplished was that my spices are now alphabetized," says Ivins, who returned to the newsroom Dec.1 sporting a black T-shirt that said, DON'T ASK ABOUT THE BOOK.
So is there anything she won't say in print? "There are two kinds of humor," says Ivins. "One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity—like what Garrison Keillor does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule—that's what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel—it's vulgar."
ANNE MAIER in Austin