Who could have foreseen the long national nightmare that is the Bush presidency? Well, Molly Ivins had a pretty good idea of what it would be like. As a syndicated political columnist in Dallas, she watched generations of crony capitalist Republicans who set the stage for Bush’s governorship. Her book Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, co-written with Lou Dubose and published in 2000, chronicled his failed business career, his deep ties to corporate America and the devastating effect of his governorship on health care, children’s welfare and the environment in the Lone Star State.
Too bad more people didn’t read it.
Since then, Ivins has written two other books: Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America, which chronicles his first (and hopefully last) term as president, and Who Let the Dogs In?: Incredible Political Animals I Have Known, which compiles her columns about a host of politicos since the Reagan era. Ivins has also survived breast cancer, an ordeal that doesn’t seem to have robbed her of any sass.
She was in Greensboro earlier this month to give a speech to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “Every month, I donate a speech to the First Amendment,” she says. “I often speak for the ACLU because they do a lot of great frontline stuff … I like to go to places where liberals are outnumbered. What’s really extraordinary is that that’s where you find courage and humor.”
Ivins spoke by phone with the Independent from her Greensboro hotel room. The following is an edited summary of that conversation.
INDEPENDENT: Your humor and your insight wouldn’t be nearly as cutting if you didn’t really love Texas. Can you talk about what it’s like to stick it out in a red state?
IVINS: I love living in Texas. I mean, what can I tell ya? It’s a harmless perversion. I love this state, but I only discuss it with consenting adults.
I think it’s a lot more fun. For one thing, life is so much easier in a place like Texas. The bad guys still wear black hats and the good guys still wear white hats, and you never have to mess around with shades of gray. People on the left don’t spend any time quarreling with each other. It’s kind of, you know, shut up and bail. And nobody has any fancy requirements for, well you’re not a liberal if you don’t agree with me on every issue. It’s kind of, oh, you’re against lynching? Good, you’re on our side.
That reminds me of Bush saying he was a uniter, not a divider, and now he’s united the Democrats.
He sure has, wow! I was in Boston for the convention. Amazing. I never saw so many united Democrats in my whole life. It was positively alarming.
I saw you being interviewed on C-SPAN recently. There were two call-in lines, one for Democrats and one for Republicans, which seemed odd. The calls you got from the Republicans were so aggressive.
There really was an extraordinary amount of venom. I suspect that’s an organized thing.
One of the things they kept saying was that you were hateful. I remember reading a column in the Progressive in which you said, if saying Bush is doing a bad job makes me a Bush hater, sign me up.
A lot of people just took the headline on that and said, “Oh, she’s a Bush hater,” without bothering to read it. That’s also a fashionable new right-wing attack, that liberals are haters, and isn’t it terrible how much they hate George W. Bush. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or throw up. We couldn’t in a million years catch up with what those people did to Bill Clinton.
Your writing stands out among other political columns in that you blend very solid, detailed, enterprising reporting with a call-it-like-you-see-it analysis. You tell the truth as best you can with what you know.
I do think it’s important to report. I find several columnists interesting or amusing, but I never learn anything from them. Whereas I think it’s worthwhile to read Bill Safire, who’s a right-winger, because he does some real reporting.
It used to be a reward: You got a political column if you were the finest political reporter of your generation at any given paper. Now what happens is that political writers aren’t even journalists. They come straight off the front lines of partisan political warfare. George Will was a partisan speechwriter. Marty Nolan used to say, if you can’t cover a five-car pileup on Route 128, you should not be covering a presidential campaign. Not that we ever claimed a lot for journalism, but there is something to be said for spending several years of your life doing things like interviewing all five eyewitnesses to an automobile accident and then trying to write a brief, coherent account of what happened. It will give you considerable respect for the complexity of truth–and also for how much misimpression can be left by leaving out facts.
I guess this is pretty old farty of me, but I would much prefer to see political commentators who have been reporters. At least Bob Novak was a journalist and reacts like a journalist. Ann Coulter–some of these people have no idea what journalism is about.
Your writing is also drop-dead funny. Political humor seems to be making a comeback on the left lately.
Irony used to be an elitist form of humor. Now everybody gets it, which I like, of course. I never think there’s any harm in laughing at these people, whether they’re on our side or not. I think all politicians should be laughed at. It’s good for them; it’s good for us; it’s good for the country. And I always say, I really am not a funny person at all. It is all in the material. I never had to do a thing–I just sit there and watch, and they produce these gems for me.
There is a trick, though, with political humor. Satire is traditionally not just funny when it’s done right, but it’s really a weapon. It can be extremely cutting. And it’s traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, it is not only cruel, it is profoundly vulgar. And this is something that I hear rather frequently from Rush Limbaugh. Making fun of dead people and the homeless and little girls is not funny. It’s cruel. To me, there is a kind of awful tone deafness with an attempt at satire on the right.
Do you watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?
I love The Daily Show. It’s a great show and it’s got a young demographic, as they say. I don’t know how widespread the impact is.
You’ve watched the Karl Rove spin machine since its nascent stages, and it just seems to get stronger. How do we combat it?
Well, he is not infallible. On the other hand, he is very, very good. As Wayne Slater, who is the Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, observes, Karl is like a shark, a creature that is perfectly evolved to do one thing, which is to move and eat. Karl is simply designed to win elections. He doesn’t care how he does it, but he’s very good at it. I really think that the Ds need to hit back more. I don’t like to see a campaign go low and negative, but I really don’t think any attack should be left unresponded to, and I think you have to respond right away.
It’s funny, they throw up all this stuff about Kerry’s war record, for heaven’s sake, which is so embarrassingly superior to George W.’s, that’s the last thing they’d want to draw attention to. No, they’ll attack it, and not much mud will stick. But if five percent of the people believe that and five percent believe that he voted against weapons systems, and five percent believe that he didn’t show up at the Senate intelligence committee–you put all those five percents together and there you are.
One of the interesting things about Rove’s attacks is that he will often do contradictory ones simultaneously, on the theory that if you throw enough stuff up there, some of it will stick. That’s just what they did to John McCain in 2000: They simultaneously spread rumors that he was gay and that he was a tomcat who cheated on his wife–perfectly contradictory, but it didn’t matter because they thought some of it would stick either way.
When I heard that Bush’s response to the Democratic Convention was the campaign slogan “Results matter,” I almost doubled over laughing.
I know. And you keep thinking, boy, people aren’t dumb enough to swallow that. But there is–and the media is in large part responsible for this–a sort of continuing instant amnesia. The media in this country don’t seem to be able to remember anything that happened last week, much less last year.