By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—She explained her views on gun control this way: “I am not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We’d turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don’t ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.”
She said of a certain beloved former president while he was in office that “if you put his brains in a bee, it would fly backwards” and that “if he gets even more sedate, we will have to water him twice a week.”
And she said of her affection for her home state: “I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.”
Boy, will we miss Molly Ivins, the writer and happy agitator who succumbed Wednesday to cancer—a disease, she said, not sparing herself from her own lashing wit, that “can kill you, but it doesn’t make you a better person.” Yes, we will remember her for being raucously funny, always at the expense of the wealthy, the powerful or the Texas Legislature.
But because she made you laugh and broke all the rules of polite commentary (“I believe in practicing prudence at least once every two or three years”), Molly made you forget how deadly serious she was about politics, democracy and social justice.
More than just about any other columnist I can think of, Molly was a genuine populist, to make proper reference to a word she couldn’t stand to see misused by charlatans. She believed in lifting up the underdog and hated it when the wealthy made excuses for injustice.
When the victims of layoffs and downsizing complained, Molly said some years ago, they were met with “a more sophisticated version of ‘So what.’ ”
“This is the gig where you make yourself look wise by tugging your chin and opining, ‘Well, yes, there is a problem, but there’s really nothing we can do about it. Blah, blah, economic globalization, blah, blah, technological change, blah, blah, only long-term solutions.’ ” To Molly, this was all self-interested nonsense.
Molly paid far more attention than most reporters to the details of budget bills and was always on the barricades when poor people were being shortchanged. During the great government shutdown of 1995, when most journalists were obsessing over the personal drama of Clinton versus Gingrich, Molly was writing about cuts to the Supplemental Security Income program.
She could talk CBO and OMB with the best of the budget mavens. Nobody much noticed because she’d keep people reading with such phrases as “the lick log”—I can’t translate that one—and “fruitcake tax giveaways.”
She believed in democratic politics and hated it when people didn’t exercise their rights to vote and protest. She believed in government and hated it when people ran it down.
“This is a column,” she wrote in September 2005, “for everyone in the path of Hurricane Katrina who ever said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just not interested in politics,’ or, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it,’ or, ‘Eh, they’re all crooks anyway.’ ... Look around you this morning. I suppose the National Rifle Association would argue, ‘Government policies don’t kill people, hurricanes kill people.’ Actually, hurricanes plus government policies kill people.”
I became a Molly fan many years ago when we both worked at The New York Times, a place where she was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake (to steal shamelessly from Raymond Chandler). I was blessed to have dinner with her last November. She was dying, but had lost none of her capacity for joyful outrage.
And joy was the key. Another thing she hated was anybody who didn’t think that fighting the good fight was a kick. She left us all with a charge a few years ago:
“Keep fighting for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t 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.”
If I may say so without raising complex theological issues, at least the hereafter is now a better place. Molly Ivins is the only person I can think of who, upon entering heaven, would start making jokes at God’s expense, and get God to laugh with her.
E.J. Dionne Jr.‘s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.