02 February 2007

Molly Ivins

Quite possibly the most sophisticated person in the room

Word of Molly Ivins' passing has just reached me, courtesy of the on-line edition of The New York Times. I'm deeply sorry: her work was so far from completed. At least she lived to see Shrub on the ropes; the impeachment she sought will probably never happen, and the tar-and-feathering she'd have enjoyed so much will remain a pleasant dream among those who survive her.

Reminded that she studied in France and graduated from Smith, I am yet again struck by her success at the Mark Twain trick, that of pretending to be a backward country bumpkin when you're really the smartest, wickedest, funniest, and quite possibly most sophisticated person in the room. Even before Twain, Benjamin Franklin managed something quite like this, as well, but I realized long ago that I lack the genius, and I settle for "passing".

I first met her over the telephone in 1992, when I was working in the Rather office. Dan had to give a speech, requiring comic observations on local politics, to give someplace in Texas, and we thought it might be useful to call Molly and get her advice. She was delighted with the assignment, asked for a fifteen-minute break so that she could brainstorm, then called back to dictate to me about two pages of rapid-fire material. Only about a quarter of this was tame enough for Dan to use: we realized shortly that people grew uncomfortable when the anchorman was too funny. (Since my jokes are seldom very good, that realization turned out to be my big break as a comedy writer.)

Not long after our telephone meeting, I attended the Republican Convention in Houston. As I approached the Astrodome one afternoon, I spotted Molly Ivins. She was hard not to spot, as she walked alongside the parking lot: very tall, lots of hair, a billowing peasant dress, an immense shoulder bag stuffed with newspapers and scraps of God-only-knows. I ran over to introduce myself, certain she'd remember a conversation both so recent and so Rather. That's when I made a double discovery: 1) that Molly Ivins was shy, and 2) that the international attention now focused on her had made her jumpy. She reacted coldly to strangers, all of whom now appeared to be either autograph seekers, or outraged conservatives spoiling for a fight. The bond between us that seemed so certain a few weeks before was never going to happen. She had become a celebrity.

Yet how richly she deserved the attention! That very week, Pat Buchanan made his infamous "Take back our cities" speech at the convention, and Molly observed that it "probably sounded better in the original German." A funny line, and wise. I was in the Astrodome when Buchanan spoke, and I felt the room temperature rise ten degrees: Buchanan wasn't merely throwing red meat to the crowd, he was barbecuing. It was one of the scariest scenes I ever witnessed. But Molly kept her cool and simply let loose a few barbs — which in turn punctured Buchanan's balloon — which turned out to be full of hot air.

It’s for others to say who she was behind her wise-cracking Good Ol’ Gal mask, but I saw clearly that it was a mask. It was her own design, which is a mercy, and it may not have covered her full face, but she wore it pretty well. The mask was useful to her, permitting her to speak about things that mattered to her. She was able to win countless admirers, many of whom thought of her as a friend: one of my own friends, a Texas liberal, told me he’d cried when he heard the news of her death, and again the next morning. But she reminds me of other famous non-actors who play roles, who live up to a public image: even the best and most gratifying mask is never a perfect fit. Sometimes the mask is altogether uncomfortable and awkward. Professional actors are luckier, because they can change masks, and even remove them.

Although Molly Ivins and I bumped into each other a few more times, she never remembered me. (Part of the curse of being in Dan's shadow was that you got to meet fascinating people, few of whom ever saw you.) I was confident, however, that by admiring her discreetly, from afar, I was doing her a favor.

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