Molly Ivins

On the death of newspapers.

November 2006By Comments

Evan Smith: Molly, I feel like it’s fitting to talk about Ann Richards first.

Molly Ivins: Let’s talk about Annie. I’ve been writing about her and thinking about her, and what I remember is that the ’90 campaign was so crazy. I mean, there was Ann, running as the New Texas, against Clayton Williams, who kept personifying the Old Texas, right down to the boots and the racist and sexist comments. She represented inclusion—it was about bringing people in who had never been part of the good-old-boy establishment. I remember setting off from the Congress Avenue Bridge on her inauguration day and marching to the Capitol. What a feeling! We were just thrilled. Henry Cisneros was carrying his little boy, and tears were running down his face because they were going to be included too. And then, of course, Ann got handed a plate full of shit. At the time she became governor, practically every function of state government was under court order; the prisons were so overcrowded that hideous convicts had to be released. She spent all her time cleaning it up, and along came [George W.] Bush to claim all the credit.

ES: Pretty soon the tributes are going to give way to the predictable complaint: “Well, she wasn’t that great of a governor.”

MI: She wasn’t. She didn’t get anything done that people had dreamed of: new programs or changing the way things worked. She cleaned up the mess and that was about all she had time for. She was supposed to have done more in her second term—that was the thinking. Best-laid plans. I do remember one moment. She and [then—lieutenant governor Bob] Bullock started a program of alcoholic rehabilitation in the prisons, which is where we really need it. All the studies show that it cuts recidivism more than any other single thing you can try. There was the governor of Texas in a circle of prisoners saying, “My name is Ann, and I am an alcoholic.” It was so very moving.

ES: Do you buy the conventional wisdom that she looked out at four more years in that job and took a pass?

MI: I don’t think she wanted to run a second time. She was just exhausted.

ES: Did she seem happy to you in her life after politics?

MI: Oh, yes, much happier. She was free to say what she wanted, and she got to do a bunch of stuff that she’d always wanted to do.

ES: It has to be difficult for you, given your own battle with cancer, to see this person you’ve been so close to succumb to the disease.

MI: As often happens, Ann was really defeated by the treatment. She had been through the chemo and the radiation and was still in very bad shape, and she had this immensely complicated operation ahead of her, that many of us worried might leave her unable to speak, because it was an esophageal cancer. What I’ve been telling people is that the doctors are gaining on cancer very rapidly. It’s almost become a chronic disease, like diabetes—something you can treat. It doesn’t go away, and you’re not well in the sense of being over it, but you go on and live your life. I’ve said that reassuringly several thousand times to people concerning my case, so I look at Annie’s and kind of wince.

ES: Where are you in your own fight?

MI: I’ve been through three rounds with this thing, this nasty breast cancer—a very aggressive form. It has metastasized. This last time, I had chemotherapy and radiation, and what they’re going to do next is keep me on a maintenance thing. They’ve really made enormous progress. When I was first diagnosed, I went out, as a book person, and got some books on cancer and looked up my version of the disease. It said that I had about a 5 percent chance of survival. I said, “Gosh, well, it’s been a good run.” What I didn’t realize is that in the two years since those books were published, things had shifted dramatically. By the end of my first treatment, I had a 70 percent chance of survival.

ES: You’re hopeful about your situation?

MI: Oh, yeah. The doc says I’m good for years.

ES: How do you feel?

MI: Right now not altogether wonderful, because I just got through with the radiation end of it. But I had radiation one day and went on the river [in the Grand Canyon with thirteen friends] the next, because I was determined to go. We had the best time. The magic of that experience is that it reduces your ego to the size of a grain of sand, and it gives you these incredible gifts of peace and beauty. It’s one staggering vista after another. All you have to do is sit there and drink it in.

ES: How has your work life been affected?

MI: I worked through cancer twice. I probably worked through it too much the last time. This time I found myself saying, “Well, I don’t feel well. I think I’ll take the day off.” I think I did that even a little bit more than I needed to.

ES: Are you writing another book?

MI: Yeah, Lou [Dubose] and I are working on a book about what’s happening to the Bill of Rights. It’s tentatively titled Chicken Snake, from that story that John Henry [Faulk] used to tell [about the fact that although chicken snakes aren’t dangerous, some things are so scary they cause you to hurt yourself]. In all the years I’ve devoted to [defending] the First Amendment, I’ve gone around mostly to small places. I don’t go to San Francisco and New York, where they already have a lot of liberals. I go to Alabama, Mississippi, North and South Dakota, and Utah. And I’ve met some real heroes who stand up for the Bill of Rights. They’re not constitutionally trained lawyers or anything like that. They’re people who look up and go, “Well, that’s not right,” and they start a fight over it. I was going to write a book about them, a happy book. But that was before September 11. As time marches along, there seems to be less and less of the Bill of Rights left. I must say, it’s discouraging to be part of a nation with a heritage like ours that’s now involved in torture and military tribunals without any justice.

ES: Do you take any comfort from the fact that you’re being handed such extraordinary material?

MI: I’ve always relished great material. That’s the reason I live in Texas.

ES: Is the part of you that’s a journalist at odds with the part of you that’s an American citizen? The journalist part of you is probably saying, “Stop complaining! This is great!”

MI: No. All my life I’ve been sort of a professional optimist, full of good cheer about matters political and journalistic. I always thought I’d get older and become an unnaturally cheerful old fart. But it’s not happening.

ES: The political situation is self-evident, but tell me about the journalistic landscape. Is it really that bad?

MI: The newspaper business? I don’t mind being in a dying industry, but it really pisses me off to be in one that’s committing suicide. It just infuriates me to see newspapers’ response to their own death, which of course is being decided by some 24-year-old genius on Wall Street who’s never even worked at a newspaper in his life.

ES: Look what’s happened at the Dallas Morning News, where more than one hundred staffers took a buyout and split.

MI: Some of their best people. I was with the Dallas Times Herald for ten years, and it was a wonderful newspaper war. We just had a marvelous time: One for all, all for one. Let’s go kick the crap out of the opposition. We were getting better and they were getting better. We had pretty much the same deal in Houston and San Antonio. That was when you could look around and say, “Is the Texas Observer needed?” It was seriously an open question. And it all crashed back into this place of just below mediocre. You know, when your product doesn’t sell well, it’s not a good idea to say, “Let’s make it smaller and tackier and less useful.”

ES: “Let’s take all the guts out of it.”

MI: Right. I wonder if that’s what people who buy newspapers are saying these days. And it’s not like I object to the idea of journalism on the Internet. You’re going to do journalism on the Internet? Great. But you have the same two problems you always have. First, you have to find out whether or not it’s true, and then you have to put it into a package that’s useful to people. Which turns out to be far more difficult than many actually expect.

ES: Do you still read newspapers?

MI: Oh, yeah. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and the Austin American-Statesman—those are the three I have delivered—and several other papers online.

ES: Anybody you really admire?

MI: The Knight Ridder bureau [in Washington, D.C.]. They were really on top of Iraq and the WMD stuff. And it was a newspaper chain. It wasn’t owned by a doughnut corporation.

ES: People who sold doughnuts yesterday and are selling newspapers today assume the metrics for measuring success are the same.

MI: I’ve seen this before. The Times used to run around hiring people to give them management theories.

ES: When the accountants take over, you have a problem.

MI: There are basically two ways to save money at a newspaper: You cut staff or you cut news—or both. And you expect to sell more? You make it worse, and you expect to sell more? I don’t know what to do about these swine who own newspapers.

ES: Let’s move on to the president, whose approval ratings are down around his ankles. With Katrina and Iraq and all that, are you still catching hell these days for dissing George W. Bush?

MI: As much as I used to, but I’ve felt a difference. For a long time it was lonely out there on the George-Bush-is-truly-an-idiot beat. I wasted all this time trying to tell people, “No, I’m not a Bush hater. It’s not like the Clinton haters hated the Clintons. This is not the same thing. I’m not a Bush hater. I’ve known him forever. He’s a decent guy. Blah, blah, blah.” He’s a terrible president, and I knew he would be. He’s a joke. He’s not interested in policy.

ES: You’re not in the camp that says, “He was a pretty good governor. He hasn’t turned out to be a good president, but we couldn’t have known”?

MI: We should have known, because one of the first things he did [as governor] was dismantle the alcoholic rehabilitation program that Annie put in place in the prisons.

ES: What is history going to say about this guy?

MI: A lot of things can be held against him, but the monumental folly is the Middle East. It’s so bad it’s almost inexplicable. We are literally at the point where the Kurds have seceded. This leaves you with a Shiite republic that will unite with Iran. [Former deputy defense secretary] Paul Wolfowitz testified before the war, in front of Congress, that there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq. Couldn’t they have at least read the encyclopedia entry?

ES: Your column is carried in how many papers now?

MI: I think three hundred.

ES: A few surprising outlets, I bet.

MI: Oh, yeah. Because I’m practically the last living liberal on the op-ed acreage, it gets carried in lots of places.

ES: Is it hard to choose between writing about Texas and writing about what’s going on nationally?

MI: It is. I’ve tended to write more on national stuff in recent years because Bush is there and I know him and in part because now I have so much syndication outside the state.

ES: What is your view of Rick Perry relative to George Bush?

MI: You wind up having to give that one to Bush, don’t you? Perry is just a terrible governor. Seven special sessions? Did it ever occur to the man that you’ve got to plan before you call a special session? He cost us millions of dollars. It’s insane. And it’s depressing. What worries me is that it seems he’s the tool of people who want to destroy the public schools. They don’t believe in government at any level. They’d just as soon privatize the schools, privatize the prisons.

ES: Perry and Chris Bell and Kinky Friedman and Carole Strayhorn are locked in mortal combat. How will it turn out?

MI: It looks like it’s going for Perry, at around 36 to 20 to 20 to whatever she has. Hers is the performance that has most surprised me, because Carole is a hell of a campaigner. I guess the Republicans aren’t as sick of Goodhair as they should be. If Chris had a chance, I’d vote for him. But as we all keep saying, “He doesn’t have a chance and he doesn’t have any money.” And you know, he doesn’t have a chance and he doesn’t have any money because we all keep saying it.

ES: So you won’t vote for Bell?

MI: I’m a mischief maker. I plan to vote for Kinky. I’m a great believer in humor and music in politics. How hard can it be? [Editor’s note: Two weeks after this interview, Ivins reversed course and endorsed Bell.]

ES: At last, a politician who’s intentionally funny. Can you imagine a scenario in which Perry loses?

MI: If Kinky were to come up with some new material—which he hasn’t done in months, I might add—and get the college kids stirred up, it could turn into one of those campaigns, like Jesse Ventura’s, where the people who don’t vote get all excited.

ES: Other than covering the election, your plan now is to finish the book and get well?

MI: And to do a little more traveling. Another one of my lifelong dreams has been to go to Africa to see the animals. There’s something about seeing the animals in the wild that is just wonderful.

ES: And then you’re going to be back at the Legislature?

MI: Yes, I plan to keep right on working. I can’t think of any reason not to.

ES: They wouldn’t know what to do without you, and vice versa.

MI: At the Grand Canyon I was sitting there in my special chair in the shade, not hiking with the group because I’m not quite up to it, and a person comes up to me and says, “You’re Molly Ivins from Austin. I’m David Sibley [the former Republican state senator from Waco].”

ES: You two have occasionally been on the opposite sides of things.

MI: The worst disservice I ever did him was to say in print that he was much more intelligent than the average Republican. I think it cost him the lieutenant governorship.

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