American politics has always had its gadflies. The late columnist/author Molly Ivins belonged to the contingent that does not express its doubts with assault rifles or bombs, but by means of acerbic humor. As we learn in filmmaker Janice Engels’ immensely entertaining biographical documentary Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, the columnist was uniquely suited to her role. Among the several gifts she possessed was the fact that she operated in the happy hunting ground for anti-establishment political commentators: the state of Texas.
Ivins’ observations about her home state are legendary and numerous. “If you think these people are crazy,” she wrote on the subject of Texas state legislators, “you should meet their constituents.” Raised the daughter of an oil man in suburban Houston, Ivins recognized early on that rootin’, tootin’, and shootin’ were popular ways to express oneself. She observes: “Texas is a mosaic of cultures: Black, Chicano, Southern, suburban, and shitkicker. Shitkicker is predominant. Texas is not a civilized place. Texans shoot one another a lot. Different colors and types of Texans do not like one another, nor do they pretend to.” From her school days at Smith College and Columbia University, Ivins’ writing relied heavily on her instinctive skepticism toward the Texas experiment. In the words of Forrest Wilder, editor of Ivins’ alma mater, the Texas Observer: “Texas is more American than America is.”
Veteran TV producer Engel thoughtfully celebrates Ivins as a leader in the emergence of women in journalistic perches formerly dominated by men. Her folksy putdowns of intolerant, foolish, power-drunk public figures qualify her for the curmudgeons’ pantheon that runs from Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H.L. Mencken all the way to Mike Royko and Gail Collins.
All along the route, during her stints with the Houston Chronicle, Minneapolis Tribune, The New York Times (she was “too Texan” for them), and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the big, gregarious Ivins (six feet tall by age 12) drank beer and made fun of elected leaders with the boys, and won their respect. She palled around with Texas governor Ann Richards; lectured Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi while drunk; authored a syndicated column called “Bubba Talk;” and never batted an eye when papers spiked her column condemning the Iraq war. In her book Bushwhacked, she describes one of her favorite subjects thusly: “I have known George W. Bush slightly since we were both in high school, and I studied him closely as governor. He is neither mean nor stupid. What we have here is a man shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture, combined with huge blinkers of class. The three Texas themes are religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo.”
TV newsman Dan Rather, one of the doc’s long roster of admiring talking heads, lauds Ivins’ audacious determination “to be seen constantly as an outsider.” It came naturally to her — Ivins’ acknowledged mentor was Texas political humorist John Henry Faulk, who was blacklisted as a commie by allies of rightwing frother Senator Joseph McCarthy, for the sin of union organizing.
Ivins’ calling card was her impatience with racial bigotry, cynical intolerance, and the ordinary, everyday lies of elected officials. The humor usually arose from the situation (“How can I not write it funny?”) but it went hand in hand with a sincere indignation toward unfairness and bullies. Declared Ivins: “What you need is sustained outrage. There’s far too much unthinking respect given to authority.” In the end, Ivins’ hard-drinking lifestyle did her in; she died from breast cancer in 2007, at age 62.
Engels’ valentine doc is well worth seeing for expert as well as casual Ivins fans, but for the full sheep dip we recommend her books, notably Nothin’ but Good Times Ahead, Who Let the Dogs In, and Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights (co-written with Lou Dubose). Her dissatisfied spirit is still among us. Don’t mess with Molly.