The Price of Being Molly

Once upon a time, Molly Ivins was an outsider—a crusading political columnist with a sharp wit. Now she’s an insider, and what’s happening to her life isn’t always funny.

MOLLY IVINS, TEXAS’ MOST FAMOUS RESIDENT JOURNALIST, pulls on a cigarette, shoves an errant strand of strawberry blond hair out of her eyes, stares down the mountains of notes and messages blanketing the surface of her rolltop desk, blinks twice through her glasses, stabs the play button on her answering machine, and states her goal for the day, and perhaps, the rest of her life. “What we try to avoid,” she says in a smoky voice that snags each and every syllable, “is that help-I’m-drowning feeling.”

What Ivins is drowning in, of course, is her own success. Her best-selling book, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?, has propelled her out of her modest regional stature as a political columnist and the last remaining voice of old-time Texas liberalism into nationwide stardom. Suddenly she finds herself getting that A-list everyone-wants-you rush that comes with being (a) the nation’s favorite professional Texan, (b) a political pundit-humorist appearing on national newscasts, including 60 Minutes and Nightline, (c) a widely read author and two-time Pulitzer nominee, and (d) a 48-year-old woman reaping fame and fortune for the first time. But if something is getting lost along the way—such as the definitive book about Texas politics that she has always wanted to write—well, Ivins may be the only one who cares. She is, liked so many Texas liberals of the old school, not entirely comfortable with attention and acclaim.

Ivins copes by cloaking her fairly formidable six-foot frame in the informality for which she has become infamous: bare feet, bare face, purple cotton shorts and a matching purple T-shirt. She is never without her most critical accessory, a smoldering Marlboro Light. She snatches serenity in measured steps, padding through her sunlit home in politically correct South Austin, tracing a path from the work littered dining room table to the sunny kitchen, where she lights another cigarette off the burner, puffs, and then heads back to the desk to check, once more, the appointment book that is already filling up with writing assignments and speaking engagements, coast to coast, through much of next year and beyond. Mostly, Ivins keeps at it, trying to ignore the anxious internal whisper that at times suggests that she does not deserve it all, that hisses that she is in grave danger of becoming one of those self-aggrandizing, self-important souls she has spent more than two decades satirizing. “I saw a shrink because I though I suffered from fear of success,” Ivins confides grimly, “but I found out I suffered from fear of becoming an asshole.”

So, in essence, everyone wants Molly—except, perhaps, Molly, The unexpected blockbuster status of Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? —a collection of columns satirizing George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the Texas Legislature, among others—raises those nagging fears that her impact as a journalist has been eclipsed by her impact as an entertainer. But what can you do when the national media keep calling?

In her column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , which appears three days a week and is syndicated in 96 newspapers, Ivins explains politics and brings government to life. She may not be the country’s most trenchant analyst or its most dazzling reporter, but her unrelenting enthusiasm for human foolishness invites readers to take on the political process. “The most amazing, amusing and fascinating of games once again bursts upon us in all its insanity,” Ivins wrote at the beginning of the 1982 Texas legislative session. “The stakes they play for in politics are paper and money. The chips they play with are your life.”

She has, as the jacket of her book declares, “a sharp eye and a sharper pen.” She writes about stupidity in politics, and she never runs short of material. Her targets have ranged from pretentious yuppies (“In the New Age none of the vegetables are their regular color. It’s all red lettuce, yellow bell peppers, golden beets”) to the presidents of the United States (“Calling George Bush shallow is like calling a dwarf short”) and Ross Perot (“all hawk and no spit”). Yet she retains a tolerance for human weakness that sometimes borders on admiration. What other female journalist would have jokingly defended girl-crazy congressman Charlie Wilson of Lufkin by writing, “His standing order on secretaries is, ‘You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits’”?

And they love her—the politicians, the yuppies, the so-called conservative East Coast media elite. They can’t get enough. To meet the ever-growing demand for her work, Ivins begins with her column. Then she does short pieces for her favorite lefty journals—the Progressive, the Nation, and Mother Jones —and longer ones for mass-market publications such as McCall’s and Playboy. On top of that, she gets calls at least twice a day from radio shows, begging for her salty opinions. Ivins is also a frequent contributor to the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour , National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and any other news show that suddenly finds itself in need of an authority on Texas. Finally, there are speeches; everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to Republican clubwomen, it seems, wants to hear Ivins hold forth. “Do I want to speak to a bunch of women at the River Oaks Country Club?” Ivins asks herself, as she squints at her datebook. “No” she answers, moving on to the next request.

And so it goes, day in and day out, Molly schedules herself into mainstream America. You’d think she’d be happy. She’s famous. She’s almost rich. Texas finally had a governor from her side of the political spectrum, her old friend Ann Richards. The place that has supplanted Scholz Garten as the new Austin lefty hangout, La Zona Rosa, is even semi-air-conditioned. But in fact, Ivins is wary. Get her on the subject of success, and the West Texas marbles-in-the-mouth accent falls away, the one-liners dry up like a played-out well. “I have always been a left-winger and an outsider. I loved being

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