Remembering the biting wit and sharp political takes of legendary Texas journalist Molly Ivins

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Before Jon Stewart and John Oliver or Gail Collins in The New York Times, there was Molly Ivins. She was the pioneering Texas journalist known for her cheerful and biting political wit. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, a documentary about her, airing Monday, March 28 on KERA-TV, Channel 13.

Molly Ivins has written seven books, including two bestsellers. At his peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, his column was syndicated to 400 newspapers across the country. And that’s not including the countless hours she appeared on television and radio as a guest expert from Texas.

But filmmaker Janice Engel really didn’t know who she was: “I mean, I had heard of her, but when she was a columnist, I was in LA and she wasn’t in our newspapers.

Then, in 2014, Kathleen Turner played Ivins in a solo show. A friend of Engel’s told her she had to see Red Hot Patriot: the crazy spirit of Molly Ivinswritten by Margaret and Allison Engel (no relation to Janice).

That’s how Janice Engel met “that six-foot-tall red-haired Texan who spoke truth to power and whether you were left or right, it didn’t matter. She was after the stupidity and she was not afraid of anything, and manshe was funny.”

Sandy Richard

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courtesy of Kaye Northcott

(left to right) Kaye Northcott, Sara Speights and Molly Ivins jostle in the Mexican kitchen of Sara Maley, Molly’s sister

It was the Ivins who had amused or enraged his fellow Texans for decades with comments like this:

“Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government. I mean, if you want to see a bad idea tried, we tried it.”

Or its joyful opening for a Dallas Times Herald column: “Happy May Day, comrades.”

Engel had produced documentaries and television series. This time, she co-wrote and directed Raise hell.

These days, with so much political satire airing on cable and online, Engel says he’s often asked who the new Molly Ivins is?

Samantha Bee? Stephane Colbert?

Nobody, really. Engel noted that all television hosts were comedians, not reporters covering the state house.

“They’re really brilliant,” she said, “but they have staff. Molly was a serious reporter. And she was on her own.”

Both Mary Ann Roser and Ivins covered state politics in the 90s for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Ivins wrote three columns a week – plus homework for The Nation, Mother Jones and McCall’s while also appearing on 60 minutes and NPR. In the Star-Telegram’At the Austin office, she worked alone in a specially ventilated office.

It wasn’t just because she was the newspaper’s star columnist then.

“She was smoking like a demon,” Roser said. “And she would come in for maybe an hour and a half and just beat a column. I mean, it was amazing to watch her because she was so fast and so smart.”

Molly Ivins at the New York Times.jpg

from “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins”

Molly Ivins at her desk at the New York Times

Kaye Northcott was Ivins’ friend and the editor of the Texas Observer. After a short stint with the Minneapolis police, Ivins made his real debut as a political journalist in 1971 at the ObserverAustin’s venerable liberal bimonthly newspaper.

Northcott says the public image of Ivins — the good old girl wise and taking on the good old boys — was partly a persona she created over time.

“It was like she was on stage the whole time,” Northcott said. Ivins was actually from a wealthy, conservative Houston family — with a strict father, a Tenneco executive nicknamed the “General.” She graduated from elite Smith College in Massachusetts (where she learned to drop her Texan accent) and earned her master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

But Northcott said Ivins’ laid-back, flamboyant Texas persona isn’t entirely an act. Not at all. She came to her job interview at Observer — “and she brought a case of beer,” Northcott said with a laugh.

Ivins’ friends actually described her as shy. As a sharp-tongued, six-foot-tall, big-boned woman, she had never quite adjusted to the upper-class decorum of Houston society or the traditions of Smith College.

Ivins captured national attention with his free-spirited coverage of the Texas Legislature for the Observer. His knowledge of political madness, placidity and corruption, his down-to-earth wit and style stood out among the commentators. In the early 1970s, there was little real political humor in the print media. It certainly did not exist on television. Mostly there were editorial cartoons – and the occasional Mort Sahl or Richard Pryor-style stand-up.

In Austin at that time, “we had so much fun,” Northcott said. “You know, when you have a writer like that, let her do her thing.”

Molly Ivins column in the Dallas Times Herald

from “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins”

For a brief period, Molly Ivins was a political columnist for the Dallas Times Herald

The problems arose when Ivins was hired by The New York Times. She was supposed to be headed for newsprint stardom, but it was a classic case of management wanting to be smart and funny — until she got both. Editors liked Ivins’ best lines — then cut them. She was criticized for her lack of formality, her attire. She was one of the few female writers there.

“She was walking around New York like Oscar Wilde, entertaining people cocktail after cocktail,” Northcott said. “But his life was miserable at Times.

In 1977, she was more or less banned for being the Times‘ Rockies Bureau Chief. She had to cover nine states by car. Thus, in 1981, when the Dallas Times Herald said Ivins could write about anything she wanted, she happily returned to Texas.

In a few years, of course, the Herald posted billboards all over town asking, “Molly Ivins can’t say that, can she?” – a line of one of many angry letters the Herald received readers. This became the title of his first best-selling column collection.

Ivins is remembered as a staunch feminist, an outspoken liberal who is often quoted for lines such as her description of Patrick Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992. : “It probably sounded better in the German original.”

But Ivins could also be very cutting with many progressive politicians whom she found hesitant or too accommodating of basic human principles. Regarding President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill that would have cut a million children off government assistance, Ivins called it “weak as the pepper of a train station. road”.

Ivins used humor to poke fun; it was political satire, a scourge of the powerful. But she also used it to lift the spirits of her readers. In the tumult of politics and pundits, she was a happy warrior. She didn’t want readers to lose hope.

Director Engel said that Ivins also used humor to disarm people: “Molly knew that humor was the key to the door to the brain. Because that’s what humor does. Humor makes us makes us laugh, we feel really good and we can Listen.”

Molly Ivins talks about her cancer

from “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins”

Molly Ivins talks about her breast cancer treatments

But Ivins’ incessant smoking and hard-to-control alcoholism eventually caught up with her. After a seven-year battle with breast cancer, she passed away in 2007. She was 62.

Political satire often ages badly. He loses the electric anger or immediate amusement that fueled him. It becomes historic.

But Ivins’ smirk humor in the face of yet another political scandal may still feel fresh. In our divided democracy, she had a fundamental faith in committed American citizens who hold the real power — not our leaders.

We are the board,” she said. “We own it. They’re just the people we hired to drive the bus for a while.”

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins airs Monday, March 28 at 9 p.m. on KERA-TV, Channel 13.

Do you have any advice? Email Jerome Weeks at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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