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Molly Ivins, 62; humorist who targeted her wit at the powerful

February 01, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Molly Ivins, the irrepressibly irreverent political humorist and syndicated columnist who skewered legislators, governors and presidents, especially those from her beloved Texas, died Wednesday at her home in Austin after a long battle with cancer. She was 62.

Ivins was diagnosed in 1999 with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. After fighting two recurrences, she became ill again last year as the disease spread throughout her body. Her death was announced by the Texas Observer, where she began her career as a political pundit 30 years ago.

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called "an old-fashioned newspaper campaign" against President Bush's plan to escalate the Iraq war. "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders," she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. "And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war."

At a tribute dinner in October that raised $400,000 for the Observer, Ivins drew a standing ovation when Lewis Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper's magazine, said: "She reminds us that dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors."

Ivins established herself as a font of liberal outrage and hilarity during the 1970s, when she was an editor and writer at the Texas Observer. She went on to write for a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Nation, the Atlantic, Esquire, Reader's Digest, the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

She also was the bestselling author of several books, including "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" (1991) and two sassily titled volumes on President George W. Bush, co-written with Lou Dubose: "Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" (2000) and "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America" (2003).

Some of her pieces were deeply reflective or affectionate, such as her essays about Ann Richards, the sharp-witted former Texas governor who died in 2006; Barbara Jordan, the late African American member of Congress, who is remembered for her eloquence during the Nixon impeachment debates; and an anonymous visitor to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

She was best known, however, for her mastery of what one critic called the "well-informed potshot," which she generally reserved for conservative figures like Bush (aside from "Shrub" and "Dubya" she called him "President Billy Bob Forehead"); and Arnold Schwarzenegger ("a condom filled with walnuts"); and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh (whose bite was "akin to being gummed by a newt.... it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle").

Liberals like Bill Clinton did not escape her arrows, either. Writing at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Ivins described the 42nd president as "weaker than bus-station chili."

Her favorite target, however, was the Texas Legislature, which she referred to as "the Lege" (pronounced like "ledge"). Describing knock-down, drag-out brawls, flagrant bias and absurd laws, she wrote of its shortcomings with gusto and horror, declaring it "the finest free entertainment in Texas. Better than the zoo. Better than the circus."

PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer once said Ivins' targets "are the hides and egos of just about everybody in the politics and gutters of today. Her language is that smooth whiplash thing called Texan Sharp, of which Molly is a laureate."

Pundits in the opposite political camp respected her, such as conservative columnist Cal Thomas. He once told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Ivins "makes us pay attention. I think she argues her position very well. Obviously, she is wrong all the time, but she'd say the same about me."

She described herself as "a left-wing, aging-Bohemian journalist, who never made a shrewd career move, never dressed for success, never got married, and isn't even a lesbian, which at least would be interesting."

Ivins was almost a native Texan: Born in Monterey, Calif., she moved to Houston before she was 1. Her father, James, was a corporate lawyer and conservative Republican. Her mother, Margaret, was a Smith College psychology graduate and self-described liberal Republican. She was, according to Ivins, "as shrewd as she was ditzy ... a combination of Sigmund Freud and Gracie Allen."

She is survived by her brother, Andy, and her sister, Sara, as well as nieces and nephews.

Like her mother, Ivins became a voracious reader, a passion that set her apart from her peers as surely as did another Ivins trait: her height. "I grew up a St. Bernard among greyhounds. It's hard to be cute if you're six feet tall," she wrote in "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?"

She followed her mother's footsteps to Smith, where she earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1965. She obtained a master's in journalism from Columbia University in 1967, then studied for a year in Paris at the Institute for Political Science.

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