|Molly Ivins, A Heroine of Our Time
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Presented by Paula Pachciarz
Song #1: Raging Grannies: "God Help America" (words by Kay Sather)
What do Molly Ivins and the Raging Grannies have in common? They're boisterous, indignant, joyful, patriotic women, who could not, can not, stand by and see all the inequity in this world without raising hell about it. Molly, too, thought America needed a lot of forgivin', but she didn't fault the American people. She had great faith in people, and great love for them.
Molly Ivins was a big-boned, 6-foot tall red-head, though she changed exactly which shade of red several times over the years, until she lost it all due to chemotherapy. She had an earthy laugh and a voice which has been described as a low, smoky drawl. Molly could expand or contract that Texas drawl depending on who she was talking to and why. Almost every memorial tribute about Molly describes her as a great raconteur and a fabulous conversationalist, but evidently she was not blessed musically. At Molly's funeral, singer Marcia Ball observed, "We've lost a great voice, but not a great singing voice."
Molly never married. That is a short sentence that says nothing about the people she loved and the things she was passionate about. Some people read into it that she was a lesbian. She said that she was not. Can any one doubt that this fearless woman wouldn't have hesitated to come out if that's who she was? In truth, she loved many people: her family, fellow writers, journalists, those who fought against the powerful, even some politicians. She had too many friends to count. She loved many things, from the mundane to the ideal. From barbecue, Lone Star beer, charades, cooking, canoeing, and parties, to the Bill of Rights, representative government, free speech, rule of law, social and economic justice, and, the Texas Observor magazine.
Molly Ivins was born in Monterey, California, in 1944 but grew up in Houston Texas. She was the middle of three children of Jim and Margot Milne Ivins. Jim was first a Naval officer and then an attorney. A corporate attorney.
Jim Ivins often took his children hiking or sailing, instilling in Molly a love for the outdoors. He also influenced her love of reading and nicknamed her "Mole" for her constant burrowing in books. However, she and her conservative father were at odds at almost all other times. After-dinner discussion on issues of the day could end in "screams and hollers". Her brother, Andy, recalls "If there was ever a contention whether something was white or black, it was between Molly and our father."
Molly's mother believed equally strongly in education and in "good manners". In her futile effort to turn Molly into a lady, she once advised her that the proper response to having a horse step on her foot was "Oh, fudge!" Advice like this didn't take. Margot Ivins refused to spank her children and didn't care what her Texas neighbors thought about that. She was her children's greatest cheerleader but considered it her motherly duty to keep any of them from getting a swelled head. Molly once had a book on the bestseller list for 6 months and pointed this out to her mother, who said, "Yes, but I see you've slipped to last on the list."
How did Molly end up being a liberal? How did she "come out so strange"? She believed that all Southern liberals come from the same starting point-race. She said that once you figure out that they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.
Even when she was a girl, Molly aspired not only to be a journalist, but to be a great journalist. She graduated from Smith College in 1966, with a degree in journalism, studied for one year at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris, and attained a master's degree from New York's Columbia School of Journalism. Politics was her passion.
She began her newspaper career with the Houston Chronicle and then moved to the Minneapolis Tribune where she became the city's first female police beat reporter. She was delighted when the police department there named their pig mascot after her.
It does happen sometimes to some fortunate people that their unique abilities and perspective find a perfect home in a place and with a people that allow those gifts to flourish. In 1970, Molly returned to Texas and to her first love, politics, as co-editor of the Texas Observer magazine in Austin. The Observer became her home and she thrived. Ronnie Dugger, the former publisher of the liberal magazine: "She just went to town. I don't believe Molly was in any way known as the person she is until she was set loose as a free person and free journalist on the Observer." She often had a different angle on a story than anyone else. She was always interested in the socially significant stories. She herself described her Observer period as "a happy, golden time, full of sunshine and laughter and beer . . . We liked to root for the good guys and nail the bad guys."
Who were the bad guys? In those years Molly took on gas and oil corporations, redistricting, Iran-Contra, and the Savings and Loan scandal. She found the Texas Legislature, "the Leg", to be a wondrous source of colorful, idiotic, and egregiously unethical actions. She considered it to be the finest free entertainment in Texas. One time, she wrote: "The Texas Legislature consists of 181 people who meet for 140 days every two years. This catastrophe has now occurred 63 times. On another occasion, when the legislature was about to convene, she said, "Every village is about to lose its idiot."
She would also occasionally write a column called "Letters From Texas" for a little publication called "The Nation". It paid her "in the high 2 figures" so she took the job for the principle, not for the money. She considered it an honor to write for "The Nation" because it was, in her words, "consistently the most provocative political journal in America." Later, she came to write regularly for The Progressive Populist and Mother Jones.
In 1976, Ivins made the difficult decision to leave Texas to become a reporter for the prestigious New York Times, first in New York, then eventually as chief of the paper's bureau in Denver. She said that since she was the only Times reporter in the western 9 state area, she got to be bureau chief. She lost that plum assignment when she described an annual chicken slaughter celebration in Colorado as a "gang-pluck". That expression never made it past her editors and got her relocated back to New York. It was with relief that Molly returned to Texas in 1982, when she accepted an offer to write for the Dallas Times-Herald. After publication of her first collection of columns in 1991, she became more well-known, and she made occasional television appearances on 60 Minutes and the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.
The Times-Herald folded in 1991. Ivins then worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram until 2001, when she became a nationally syndicated columnist.
Molly never lost her connection to the Texas Observer and continued to support it throughout her life, contributing to its pages, energetically raising funds for its survival. Her journalistic ethic had been shaped by her experience with The Observer and she judged all other journalism by that high standard.
Media Reading #1
"This is what the Observer claims as its goal: 'We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy, we will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit."
Does this statement sound familiar? I, too, was struck by its similarity to the fourth and fifth principles of the UUA: (rephrase for Socialist Potluck) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.
I don't think Molly could ever be shocked by shoddy journalism, but she never lost her capacity to be appalled.
Media Reading #2
"There was a time when explaining how what the government does affects "ordinary people" was considered political reporting. But reporters somehow became more fixated on the polls, the consultants, the horse race, and the partisan bickering; ordinary people pretty much fell off the screen. . . . The difference between one underassistant secretary and another assistant undersecretary is still turning people's lives upside down; indeed, it can be the difference between life and death."
Media Reading #3
"The most disturbing development among the Washington press corps is a collective amnesia about the purpose of a newspaper-which is to gather news. The mortal sins of the press have always been our sins of omission, not our sins of commission, . . . It is the stories we don't get, the ones we miss, pass over, fail to recognize, don't pick up on, that will send us to hell."
Molly once called the Washington press corps "a bunch of trained seals sitting around waiting for their five o'clock feeding."
Molly did her best not to miss the important stories. Often enough they were highly critical of individuals in the government, but Molly did not think that government was in itself bad. She saw both its necessity and its capacity for taking many forms.
Government Reading #1
Personally, I think government is a tool, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to build or you can use a hammer to destroy; there is nothing intrinsically good or evil about the hammer itself. It is the purpose to which it is put and the skill with which it is used that determine whether the hammer's work is good or bad.
But so often the work of our government is bad. One area which we are all painfully aware of these days are the current priorities in military spending. There is plenty to say about that, and we and the Raging Grannies will be saying it in a few moments, but there is another insidious tradition in our military spending. Molly speaks to that:
Military Spending Reading
" . . . We're the number-one arms merchant in the world. The old phrase, "merchants of death" fits us nicely, thank you. But what's even worse than that is that we taxpayers are subsidizing this dismal trade to the tune of $7.6 billion a year. While Congress is busy cutting welfare to poor American children, we're beefing up welfare for our arms merchants. . . a $15 billion taxpayer-backed, arms export loan guarantee fund and a $200 million tax break for foreign arms clients. . . . The Pentagon has an arms-sales staff of 6,395, an increase of 7.5 percent since 1992. . . . Major weapons-exporting firms contributed $14.8 million to congressional candidates from 1990 to 1994. Lockheed and Martin Marietta . . . gave more than $1.1 million to candidates in 1994 . . . The taxpayers are now underwriting one half of the total value of U.S. arms exports. . . many of the weapons-proliferations threats cited by the CIA . . . as rationales for increasing U.S. military spending have been exacerbated by our own weapons sales. In other words, we have to spend more to defend ourselves against dangerous situations we ourselves have helped create. Does the word dumb come to mind?"Note: That column was written during the Clinton years.
Grannies, please help us express our feelings about this.
Song #2 (all-round) Wasteful Military Spending
What social justice issues didn't Molly take on? Here's an abbreviated list of those issues she discussed / shed light on / agitated about / clarified / exposed / railed against / argued for / poked fun at / excoriated, over the years: global warming, AIDS, the homeless, Gun Control (she devoted an annual column to this subject), Gay and Lesbian rights, welfare, freedom of speech, health care, separation of church and state, education, sex education, the environment, unemployment, women's reproductive rights, tort reform, disparity in sentencing, and always, always, corporate influence in government. Let's pick one subject, the environment.
In her most recent book, Bushwhacked, Ivins describes how in 1980s the Air Force disposed of 4-5 million surplus gallons of Agent Orange by subcontracting its remixing and shipping to the Chemical Insecticide Corporation (CIC). The 5-acre CIC site became a toxic nightmare and was abandoned by its owner. It sat for years releasing a stew of toxins to the air, soil, and water (and turning rabbits green) without local residents being notified of its existence. So much for letting the chemical industry regulate itself. Children played in the brooks downstream of its drainage pipe and on the abandoned lot itself. Six nearby bakery employees, their place of work their only thing in common, died of cancer. Their widows filed a lawsuit. People with cancer "were coming out of the woodwork" asking the _____ law firm to represent them. The case lost because the law firm didn't have the money to do a million-dollar epidemiological study. (Note: Toxic waste tort cases are exactly the type of lawsuits targeted in Bush's tort reform push.) The abandoned toxic waste site was declared an "orphan" Superfund site in 1985, and, after heroic efforts by a man named Bob Siegel, received a temporary rubber blanket over it, designed to last for 3-7 years, in 1992. The EPA never returned to clean it up for good because it ran out of money. Why was that? Cleanup of orphan sites is paid for by the Superfund Trust, which was in turn funded by a tax on the chemical industry. (Oil companies, responsible for much of toxic dumping, made sure they were never included in the tax.) That tax was killed in 1995 as part of the "Contract with America". Bill Clinton tried twice to reinstate it, but couldn't get the Republican Congress to do so. The Superfund Trust consequently dried up. Now general appropriations funds are supposed to pay for cleanups; indeed, George W. Bush promised this, but since the money in those funds have gone to deficits, tax cuts, and funding wars, they, too, have dried up.
Molly said that the media asked the wrong questions earlier about George W. Bush's chemical dependency problem. It's not cocaine, it's Monsanto, Dow, and Union Carbide.
Are you picking up on the common thread that runs through these stories? No wonder Molly identified the greatest political evil to be corporate control of public affairs.
Another environmental story. The short version: Because of the influence of the meat and poultry industries, the USDA does not have the authority to conduct tests for microbes such as Salmonella at meat and poultry plants. The government can recall toys, cars, and infant cribs but it cannot recall tainted beef. The USDA does not have the power to impose fines on irresponsible slaughterhouse operators. It cannot require plant supervisors to inform the Secretary of Agriculture if a plant is shipping products that don't meet safety standards. USDA inspectors have little authority to stop a production line if they suspect contamination and wish to check more closely. The USDA will only back them up if it verifies the contamination, and it verifies that only if "gross" contamination is found.
Molly gives us something to ponder about this state of affairs.
Environment Reading #1
"The industry doesn't want you to know it, but "ready-to-eat meat is not ready to eat. A USDA website warns that ready-to-eat meats--cold cuts-if not thoroughly cooked, are a risk to pregnant women, the young, the old, cancer patients, anyone whose immune system is suppressed. The industry has successfully fought to keep that warning off packaging labels and grocery-market coolers. Do you know anyone who cooks ready-to-eat deli meats? Almost all of it is perfectly safe, but every now and then a Listeria-tainted batch of luncheon meat or hot dogs makes it into supermarkets and restaurants. Some of the people who eat it die: five hundred a year in the United States."
Now these statements were true when written 4 years ago. I wonder if regulations have improved.
Note: Ready-to-eat meat is provided to school lunch programs through the USDA.
Ready for some more venting? Here come the grannies with "Bring Back My Planet".
Song #3: Bring Back My Planet
I'm going to slip in a guilty pleasure here. I'd like to share a few zingers that Molly either coined or borrowed and used in her columns. Even though she could get plenty riled up over an issue, she didn't actually hate any individuals. But she could sure get exasperated with them and she didn't hesitate to use her wit and voluminous vocabulary to skewer them. She never used them on other than powerful people, however. Here are a few:
Runnin' on his rims (Ronald Reagan).
But usually Molly took the high road. She also knew that she wasn't in this fight alone. She was a sincere populist; she was dedicated to speaking for the interests and views of the "common" people, and taking up their cause against the rich and powerful who worked against those interests. Yet she also knew that there were multitudes of voices out there in complete agreement with her, (and in incomplete agreement) that weren't speaking up. For one reason or another they remained silent, uninvolved in the very world that was shaping their lives. She exhorted readers to use their precious right to participate in a democracy.
Responsibilities of Citizens Reading #1
"Politics is not something you can stand off and look at as though it were a television program or a painting on a wall and decide you don't really much care for it. This is the warp and woof of your life; everything from how deep you will be buried when you die to the textbooks your kids study in school, . . . to your health, education, home insurance . . . "
Responsibilities of Citizens Reading #2
"We Americans are heirs to the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever received. There are no words better than the old words used to define that legacy at the beginning. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women!] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed--That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.' More than two hundred years later, people all over the world are willing to die for a chance to live by these ideals. They died in South Africa, they died at Tiananmen Square, they're dying today on Myanmar.
That Molly--such a rabble-rouser. But exercising your right to vote presumes that your vote will actually be counted. The Raging Grannies have something to sing about how that precious right may be in jeopardy.
Song #4: Paper Trail
Let me return one more time to the theme of corporate influence over the political process. I'll let Molly's words speak for themselves.
Campaign Finance Reading #1
"Make no mistake. The special interests that give so generously to political campaigns are not making a foolish investment. They are rewarded with hundreds of millions in special tax breaks and competitive advantages. And you know who winds up paying the tab for that. Whenever a company buys a sweet deal through campaign contributions, the rest of us get stuck with that much more of the tab for keeping the country running and paying for necessary government programs. You may never have given a nickel to a political campaign in your life, but believe me, they are costing you a fortune." (p. 125 Dance)
Campaign Finance Reading #2
" . . . We might remind people what this is about. The corruption of the American political system. The root of the rot. The source of everything that is wrong with our political life. The reason our democratic system is in peril. The reason politicians no longer represent the people.And, as we heard earlier, how the military-industrial complex interacts with government decisions is a prime example of this corruption of democratic values. Let's join the grannies in our final song, "There's No Business Like War Business"
Song #5: (all) There's No Business Like War Business
After Molly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, she ordered her readers: "Get. The. Damn. Mammogram. Now." She endured three bouts of breast cancer in all. She wrote that the cancer forced her to face mortality, but that it didn't trick her into becoming a better person. Even as the cancer drained her energy and made that remarkable voice of hers faint, she still traveled and made public appearances, including one at the University of Texas last fall, where she urged the standing-room-only crowd of students to get involved.
Molly Ivins died of breast cancer on January 31, 2007, at age 62.
She dictated her last column, for the Progressive Populist, only two weeks before that, it to her right-hand woman, Betsy Moon. In this column, entitled, "Stand Up Against the Surge", she beat the drum ever more urgently for working against the war in Iraq. She reminded us that we are the people who run this country, and that we have an obligation to make sure our will is implemented. She exhorted us to raise more hell.
But I would like to end this presentation with different words of Molly's. Yes, she was a passionate and tireless fighter against the corruption of power, a dedicated crusader for social justice, but she brought such JOY to it! She made me laugh. She made us all laugh this morning. She helped us see the humor and the humanity in people, politicians included. She may have despised the actions of some, but she didn't hate anybody. She was boisterous, bawdy, funny as hell, and wouldn't let the powers that be get her down, not for long, anyway. In her book, Nothin' But Good Times Ahead, is the particular piece of Ivins's wisdom I choose to end with.
"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. . . And when you get through kickin' ass and celebrating the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after you how much fun it was."
You told us, Molly, you told us.