O, Molly, Where Art Thou?

She was often biting and acerbic, but always conveyed a fondness for her home state and its people: “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part and discuss it only with consenting adults.”

O, Molly, Where Art Thou?

The legendary Senator Carl Parker used to say: “If you got rid of all the fools in the Legislature, it wouldn’t be a representative body anymore.” No journalist captured that foolishness to more enjoyable effect than Molly Ivins.

It’s been fifteen years since Molly went to that Great Newsroom in the Sky, leaving behind legions of friends, admirers, and ardent readers. I became a fan of Molly Ivins in the mid-1980s when her humor and my attention span for government’s foibles began to synch up. A decade later, I was lucky enough to become an acquaintance and occasional visitor to her home.

During a writing career that spanned five decades, Molly skewered presidents, governors, congresscritters and legislators of the left and right alike. She wrote for institutions like The Texas Observer (for which she is something like a patron saint) and The New York Times, during which they created a Denver bureau, at least in part to get her out of New York. (Her career with the Times ended when she described a community chicken-killing event as a “gang pluck.”) She spent the next two decades back in Texas, writing for the Dallas Times Herald and then the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She started syndicating her columns in 2001, continuing until cascading health issues forced her to retire in 2006.

Molly could be equally critical of Democrats and Republicans, although her sympathies were always with the little guys, the ones Texas icon Ralph Yarborough was thinking of when he encouraged government to “put the jam on the lower shelf.”

She was often biting and acerbic, but always conveyed a fondness for her home state and its people: “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part and discuss it only with consenting adults.” She was occasionally devastating in her legislative reporting, but her writing was leavened by an appreciation of, and even affection for, the ignoramuses, liars, and poltroons who made up the Texas Legislature.

Molly also saw herself as a Happy Warrior:

So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.[1]

Since Molly died in 2007, various and sundry Texans have asked themselves whether someone might replace her. She cannot be replaced, of course; her intelligence, wit and style were one of a kind. But one could still hope that her humor and fearlessness might find their way into print via a new generation of journalists.

There’s the marvelous Mimi Swartz at Texas Monthly, who, in her remembrance of Sarah Weddington last December, said this about Molly and her ilk:

That group included but certainly wasn’t limited to Barbara Jordan, Sissy Farenthold, Ann Richards, Molly Ivins, Liz Carpenter, and a host of others who were smart, clever, and perpetually pissed off about the limits placed on their talents, their abilities, and their dreams. They understood that until women had positions of power, they could never change the status quo, and so spent their lives, hands on hips, getting themselves and their kind into legislatures and law firms and back rooms where they could make a difference.

There’s a whole passel of terrific journalists at the 19th*, a nonprofit digital newsroom co-founded by Texans Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora.

There are also some very good writers slinging news for the state’s major dailies. The Houston Chronicle’s Erica Grieder is insightful and occasionally funny, but she is far from the big-L liberal Molly was. Lisa Falkenberg, at the same paper, writes with pathos about injustice, but she is now an editor and only occasionally seen in print. Karen Brooks Harper, currently at the Texas Tribune, is funnier than hell and legislative insiders adore her, but she has yet to find a venue that will let her speak in her voice. The Dallas Morning News’s Lauren McGaughy is promising, but no one knows when, or if, she will slip the reins.

Who am I missing?

The Astute Reader will notice that my suggestions are all women, and that’s intentional. Part of Molly’s unique gift was to be fearless and funny in the toxic masculine culture of Texas politics. Molly could “good ol’ boy” with the best of them (including drinking many of them under the table), but they always suspected – rightly – that she was an agent provocateur.

There is another reason it will be difficult to find another Molly. The Texas political culture that she observed and skewered so well is all but gone. Colorful characters like Babe Schwartz and Bill Clements have been replaced by prefabricated, blow-dried automatons whose every utterance is a) poll-tested and b) vapid. Partly that’s because the Texas electorate itself has become more suburban, homogenous and boring. For example, whereas the D/FW Metroplex used to produce brilliant and colorful (Bob McFarland, Steve Wolens) legislators, the population surge into Collin and Denton counties has produced not a single example of either.

In addition to demographics, the way politics is covered has changed, thanks to 24-hour news cycles and social media. Bob Bullock was a genius who completely modernized the Comptroller’s Office during his tenure there in the 1970s and 80s. By the time he became Lieutenant Governor in 1991, he understood the workings of state government better than any other Lite Guv in Texas history. He was also a drunk, a rageaholic, and a philanderer. Does anyone think he could get elected today?

Instead, we get Dan Patrick, the Rush Limbaugh-wannabe who epitomizes the vicious, petty and vindictive turn that Texas politics has taken. Patrick runs the Texas Senate like his personal fiefdom, punishing any senators, Democratic or Republican, who do not bend the knee. And so long as Patrick, like his fellow statewide Republicans, fears no meaningful challenge in general elections, the beatings will continue.

It will be harder to find a new Molly Ivins because Texas politics itself is sadder, meaner and more vicious. Parker’s aphorism could well be amended, “If you got rid of all the self-righteous scolds, bullies, jerkwads and hypocrites in the Legislature … .” And while Molly was at times scathing about bad policy and worse politicians, she was not mean for meanness’s sake, as if it was an acceptable mode of public discourse. My, how times have changed!

Texas would be better off with another Molly Ivins.

[1]                John Nichols, quoting Molly in “Remembering Molly Ivins,” The Nation, February 1, 2007, Accessed at https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/remembering-molly-ivins/