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Molly Ivins, 62; humorist who targeted her wit at the powerful

Times Staff Writer

Molly Ivins, the irrepressibly irreverent political humorist and syndicated columnist who skewered legislators, governors and presidents, especially those from her beloved Texas, died Wednesday at her home in Austin after a long battle with cancer. She was 62.

Ivins was diagnosed in 1999 with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. After fighting two recurrences, she became ill again last year as the disease spread throughout her body. Her death was announced by the Texas Observer, where she began her career as a political pundit 30 years ago.

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called “an old-fashioned newspaper campaign” against President Bush’s plan to escalate the Iraq war. “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders,” she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. “And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war.”

At a tribute dinner in October that raised $400,000 for the Observer, Ivins drew a standing ovation when Lewis Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s magazine, said: “She reminds us that dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors.”

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Ivins established herself as a font of liberal outrage and hilarity during the 1970s, when she was an editor and writer at the Texas Observer. She went on to write for a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Nation, the Atlantic, Esquire, Reader’s Digest, the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

She also was the bestselling author of several books, including “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” (1991) and two sassily titled volumes on President George W. Bush, co-written with Lou Dubose: “Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush” (2000) and “Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America” (2003).

Some of her pieces were deeply reflective or affectionate, such as her essays about Ann Richards, the sharp-witted former Texas governor who died in 2006; Barbara Jordan, the late African American member of Congress, who is remembered for her eloquence during the Nixon impeachment debates; and an anonymous visitor to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

She was best known, however, for her mastery of what one critic called the “well-informed potshot,” which she generally reserved for conservative figures like Bush (aside from “Shrub” and “Dubya” she called him “President Billy Bob Forehead”); and Arnold Schwarzenegger (“a condom filled with walnuts”); and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh (whose bite was “akin to being gummed by a newt.... it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle”).

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Liberals like Bill Clinton did not escape her arrows, either. Writing at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Ivins described the 42nd president as “weaker than bus-station chili.”

Her favorite target, however, was the Texas Legislature, which she referred to as “the Lege” (pronounced like “ledge”). Describing knock-down, drag-out brawls, flagrant bias and absurd laws, she wrote of its shortcomings with gusto and horror, declaring it “the finest free entertainment in Texas. Better than the zoo. Better than the circus.”

PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer once said Ivins’ targets “are the hides and egos of just about everybody in the politics and gutters of today. Her language is that smooth whiplash thing called Texan Sharp, of which Molly is a laureate.”

Pundits in the opposite political camp respected her, such as conservative columnist Cal Thomas. He once told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Ivins “makes us pay attention. I think she argues her position very well. Obviously, she is wrong all the time, but she’d say the same about me.”

She described herself as “a left-wing, aging-Bohemian journalist, who never made a shrewd career move, never dressed for success, never got married, and isn’t even a lesbian, which at least would be interesting.”

Ivins was almost a native Texan: Born in Monterey, Calif., she moved to Houston before she was 1. Her father, James, was a corporate lawyer and conservative Republican. Her mother, Margaret, was a Smith College psychology graduate and self-described liberal Republican. She was, according to Ivins, “as shrewd as she was ditzy ... a combination of Sigmund Freud and Gracie Allen.”

She is survived by her brother, Andy, and her sister, Sara, as well as nieces and nephews.

Like her mother, Ivins became a voracious reader, a passion that set her apart from her peers as surely as did another Ivins trait: her height. “I grew up a St. Bernard among greyhounds. It’s hard to be cute if you’re six feet tall,” she wrote in “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?”

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She followed her mother’s footsteps to Smith, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1965. She obtained a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 1967, then studied for a year in Paris at the Institute for Political Science.

By then, her liberal instincts were well-developed, through an early knowingness about the realities of Southern life.

“I believe all Southern liberals come from the same starting point -- race,” she once wrote. “Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.

“If you grew up white before the civil rights movement anywhere in the South, all grown-ups lied. They’d tell you stuff like, ‘Don’t drink out of the colored fountain, dear, it’s dirty.’ In the white part of town, the white fountain was always covered with chewing gum and the marks of grubby kids’ paws, and the colored fountain was always clean. Children can be horribly logical.”

During summer breaks from Columbia, she worked at the Houston Chronicle as “sewer editor,” her self-mocking description of a rookie reporter’s job. After graduation, she decided that the best course of action was to leave the South for the ostensibly more high-minded North. She went to work for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1968 and covered social movements and the police beat. She would later write in an official biography that one of her greatest honors was having the Minneapolis police name its mascot pig after her.

After three years, she returned to Texas to become co-editor of the Observer, a liberal journal “so poor that the business manager slept under the Addressograph and the reporters stole pencils from the governor’s office.” She knew she had made the right move when she began to cover the Texas Legislature. On the first day of its 1971 session, “I walked onto the floor of the Texas House, saw one ol’ boy dig another in the ribs with his elbow, wink, and announce, ‘Hey, boy! Yew should see whut Ah found mahself last night! An’ she don’t talk, neither!’ It was reporter-heaven,” she recounted years later. Later she wrote that when the state Legislature convenes it means that “every village is about to lose its idiot.”

She chronicled the mistakes and misdeeds of Texas lawmakers for five years until she was hired away by the New York Times in 1976. She covered New York politics, then became the paper’s Rocky Mountain bureau chief, but the match of Ivins and the Grey Lady of journalism was misbegotten from the get-go. The paper flattened and defoliated her colorful prose. For example, it turned “a beer gut that belongs in the Smithsonian” into “a protuberant abdomen.”

The line that ended her New York Times career came in a story about a community chicken-killing festival. Ivins called the event a “gang pluck,” a choice of words that caused her to be “sort of abruptly recalled, like a defective automobile and replaced,” she told Salon.com in 2000.

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Her next stop was the Dallas Times Herald, which promised her a column and stylistic freedom. It stood by her for 10 years, even when one of her pieces caused an advertiser boycott and canceled subscriptions. In the offending column, Ivins had said of a local congressman: “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.” The Herald showed its support by renting billboards around town that said “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?”

The campaign provided the title for her first book, a collection of columns that were never subtle in their summations of the state of the presidency, Congress and “the Lege.” The book remained on bestseller lists for a year and earned wide praise. “Ivins is H.L. Mencken without the cruelty, Will Rogers with an agenda,” reviewer Chris Goodrich wrote in the Los Angeles Times. A “delight from start to finish,” wrote Allen Lacy in the New York Times.

Four years later, in 1995, writer Florence King said Ivins plagiarized her in one of the essays in the book. Ivins acknowledged that she had goofed in omitting the attribution for some lines and apologized.

When the Dallas Times Herald closed in 1992, she found herself in the odd predicament of being “broke, unemployed and on the New York Times bestseller list.” She eventually landed at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a columnist. She remained there until the spring of 2001, when she began to write directly for Creators Syndicate, which distributed her twice-weekly column to 400 papers across the country.

Throughout her career, she regularly used words that most family papers would not print. She was so staunch a believer in freedom of expression that she visited one ACLU chapter a month and did not charge a speaking fee, a practice that stemmed from a promise she made in 1989 to a dying friend who had been a champion of the 1st Amendment.

She sometimes wrote about her battle with inflammatory breast cancer, an uncommon form of the disease known to progress rapidly. Ivins called it “massive amounts of no fun” but was unsentimental about its many indignities, which included a radical mastectomy and failed breast reconstruction. She called herself “a happy, flat-chested woman” and insisted that being forced to confront mortality had not improved her character.

In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with King Juan Carlos of Spain, fashion photographer Richard Avedon and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She described her reaction to the honor in typical Ivins twang: It had left her “whomperjawed.”

Memorial donations may be sent to the Texas Observer, 307 W. 7th St., Austin, TX 78701; or the American Civil Liberties Union, 127 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004.

elaine.woo@latimes.com


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