Molly Ivins’ voice left quite a mark
We would-be raconteurs, straight shooters, and cutters of the crap are mourning our sass-mouthed queen this week, our rabble-rouser-in-residence. Syndicated columnist and gleeful turd in the political punch bowl Molly Ivins succumbed to breast cancer last Wednesday at the age of 62. She once joked that her writing was energized by “truly impressive amounts of beer.” In that vein, the next time I crack open a cold one, I’ll raise it to her.
If you’re not familiar with Molly’s work, here’s what you need to know: She was feisty, she was a Texan, and she was chicken soup for the liberal soul. She hit the telling-it-like-it-is tone (which many writers aim for or are wrongly credited with) on the bull’s eye. She made her readers think, laugh, and then think some more.
She once said that government (or, as she was fond of writing in her Texas vernacular, guvment) was the best form of free entertainment. She loved exposing all that was hypocritical and absurd in our nation’s leaders — which is to say, she had her work cut out for her in the 21st century.
She even had the stones to regularly refer to President Bush as “Shrub,” and her unofficial slogan was “raise hell.”
But if you want to talk about it in fancy words, what Molly had was a near-perfect ethos, which is the most mysterious and, I think, most important aspect of rhetoric. If you imagine a piece of persuasive writing as a little window into a writer’s sensibilities, the ethos is what you’d see if you peered inside. It’s what Stephen Colbert so brilliantly skewers in blowhards like Bill O’Reilly.
Molly’s healthy disrespect for authority grew out of her relationship with her hard-line father. Her inability to suffer fools grew out of reporting on the Texas Legislature early in her career.
As a journalist, it was Molly’s job to be direct, accessible, and concise. But she went one step further, employing a conversational tone that was at times humorous, but always straightforward and persuasive. Her prose style was unique because it refused to align itself with what most readers expected from political criticism or commentary. And while unconventional, Molly’s ethos was breathtakingly appropriate. Her refusal to speak the formalized language of politics made her criticism not only memorable, but incisive as well. It created, and then worked in, its own context.
In her April 27, 2006 column, she defended the privacy of late reporter Jack Anderson when the Bush administration wanted to seize the files he’d kept during his decades as a journalist. The column also criticized the administration’s extreme secrecy. As Ivins settled into her argument, her distinctive voice began to surface: “Those who saw government documents between declassification and reclassification are just going to have to forget what they saw. That, or some Man in Black will be sent around to zap your memory with a little thingamajig.”
Comparing government practices to a fluffy science fiction flick is absurd — but that’s the point. Ivins’ unique delivery embodied her mission to knock government off its pedestal and into the hands of the common people where she believed it belonged. She could have written, “It is pointless for the government to reclassify documents once they have been declassified, because people have already seen them and know what they contain.” That’s clear and direct, too, but it lacks Ivins’ snarky irreverence. It’s not nearly as memorable.
All right, I admit it: Part of the reason I love Molly Ivins’ writing so much is that I agree with her. I’m sure a reader of a different political persuasion would loathe in her what I love — he or she would find Ivins’ sarcasm snotty and obnoxious, her down-home tone condescending and disingenuous. But golly — I’ve yet to find a conservative writer with so fine an ethos, with a sense of self so accurate and so unshakable. Maybe I can’t see the forest through the trees (“forest” signifying my crippling bias and “trees” my unabashed liberalism). Go figure.
In any case, do yourself a favor: Look her up and read a column or two. Whatever your political inclinations, you’ll love getting to know her. And when you’re finished, I bet you’ll like her, or at least respect her, even if, on the off-chance that you’re a humorless Rebiblican, you disagree with her.