No one could describe Texas politics like Molly. She could do it with a keyboard, a droll remark, or something as simple as a roll of her eyes while sitting in the House gallery. For the thirty-five years that I knew her, she was the articulate, entertaining, unflagging, and ever-optimistic voice of Texas liberalism. In addition to her prodigious talent as a writer, she was blessed with a cutting wit that was nonetheless forgiving of human frailty.
Like her friend Ann Richards, Molly bore the burden of her followers’ expectations. Everywhere she went, people expected her to be clever. Even in her long illness–at least on the occasions that I happened to be present–she never disappointed. The worst fate that could befall a speaker was to follow Molly on a program. I learned this the hard way.
Her writing style was one of the most recognizeable of any political pundit. You didn’t have to read the byline; the wry commentary identified the author in the first few words. Although she had chosen sides in the political wars, I never knew her to write about the opposition with spite. Her weapons were humor, feigned surprise, a tinge of regret. She managed to be at once a fierce partisan and a gentle (but deadly) critic.
My favorite story by Molly was written so long ago–the seventies–that all I can dredge up are wisps of memory. She wrote it for her beloved Texas Observer, which she had left to join the staff of the New York Times in 1976. The story compared the Texas Legislature to the much more liberal New York Legislature, which she was covering. Much to my surprise, she preferred our guys. In New York, individual legislators could do little more than ratify the decisions of the leadership, while in Texas, individual members could do what they were big enough to do–rise to the occasion or fall from grace. Molly loved the human drama of Texas politics, its theater, its public display of human nobility and foible. It was a great piece, and it helped me, in my early years of covering the Capitol, to appreciate the importance and power of personality in politics. There are other Molly stories from that era that I filed away in my memory–one on a trip she took to the Soviet Union, one about her cat–but, alas, the files are empty.
In 1985, I asked Molly to write a piece for Texas Monthly’s Sesquicentennial issue, celebrating the 150th anniversary of independence from Mexico. The theme of the issue was “150 moments that made us the way we are.” Molly wrote about the “Texas Watergate”–the Sharpstown Scandal of 1971-72, which brought down the state’s conservative Democratic establishment, or, as Molly put it simply, “threw the bums out.” She set the scene at the governor’s inaugural ball, where “he looked like somebody had just run over his puppy.” She continued, “Rumors that the mother and father of all scandals were all over the hall; it was a minor league version of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball the night before the Battle of Waterloo.” She went on to recount the story of the scandal: the banking bills the Legislature passed at the behest of wheeler-dealer Frank Sharp, the assorted politicians who were caught up in Sharp’s Ponzi scheme, the Speaker of the House who assailed the handful of members who voted for an investigation as “those thirty dirty bastards.”
If you want to know what Molly Ivins stood for as a journalist, read the last four paragraphs of her story, which I reproduce below. It’s all here: her insight, her humor, her controlled indignation, her optimism, her realism, her sense of history, her acceptance of the imperfections of mankind.
One little-noticed effect of the Sharpstown scandal was that it galvanized the state press. Before the scandal, the attitude of Texas newspapers toward the state’s political power structure might most kindly be described as supine. Sharpstown was such a wonderfully rich and complex set of doings that every newspaper could get hold of a piece of it and find an exclusive somewhere. They were not content merely to print what the pols had to say in their defense: the press thought more answers were required and started digging for them. Most uncharacteristic behavior. In response, the politicians tried to blame everything on the press. To read their statements today is to be amazed by how often they tried to divert the public’s anger into shooting the messenger.
As a matter of ethics, the response of the pols caught in the Sharpstown scandal was especially instructive. What they said, one and all, was, “Who, me? What do you mean, I’m in trouble? I can’t be in trouble. EVERYBODY DOES IT.” Now, the everybody-does-it excuse is not acceptable in Ethics I, much less to the average mother of a seven-year-old, but the citizenry perceived that the real Sharpstown scandal was that almost everybody in Texas politics DID do it. The problem was the whole system. Frank Sharp’s banking bills passed the House of Representatives by 120-8 and the Senate by 24-2. Sharp didn’t bribe those people–they didn’t even know what they were voting on. The Speaker wanted it; that was all they had to know, that was the way it worked.
Fourteen months after the scandal broke, former Speaker Gus Mutscher was convicted in Abilene of conspiracy to accept a bribe. The prosecutor was Travis County DA Bob Smith, a man with a manner as plain as his name. Smith told the jury in his summation, “Y’all keep hearing about the mess in Austin. Y’all keep talking about the mess in Austin. All over this state we keep asking, ‘Why don’t they do something about the mess in Austin?’ Well, this is your chance to do something about the mess in Austin.”
The people had their chance to do somthing about it on Election Day 1972. They elected a new governor, a new lieutenant governor, and 85 head of freshman legislators, every one of them running hard on a platform of reform. Of course the new bunch didn’t quite clean up the Augean Stables in Austin. They passed a little ethics legislation, some financial disclosure laws, lobby registration, and a few procedural reforms, and that was about the end of the post-Sharpstown “ree-form.” But it was real, visible progress. What do you want, blood? Besides, if we took all the fools out of the Texas Legislature, it wouldn’t be a representative body anymore.”
Thanks, Molly, for a great piece, and a whole lot more.