Best-selling author and newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, the sharp-witted liberal who skewered the political establishment and referred to President Bush as “Shrub,” died Wednesday after a long battle with breast cancer. Ivins was 62.
The writer, who made a living poking fun at Texas politicians, whether they were in her home base of Austin or the White House, revealed in early 2006 that she was being treated for breast cancer for the third time.
“Molly was a hero. She was a mentor. She was a liberal. She was a patriot. She was a friend. And she always will be,” the Texas Observer said in a statement upon her death. “With Molly’s death we have lost someone we hold dear. What she has left behind we will hold dearer still.”
Managing Editor David Pasztor said Ivins died Wednesday afternoon at her home while in hospice care.
More than 400 newspapers subscribed to her nationally syndicated column, which combined strong liberal views and populist-toned humor. Ivins’ illness did not seem to hurt her ability to deliver biting one-liners.
“I’m sorry to say (cancer) can kill you but it doesn’t make you a better person,” she said in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News in September 2006, the same month cancer claimed her friend former Gov. Ann Richards.
To Ivins, “liberal” wasn’t an insult. “Even I felt sorry for Richard Nixon when he left; there’s nothing you can do about being born liberal ? fish gotta swim and hearts gotta bleed,” she wrote in a column included in her 1998 collection, “You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You.”
In a column in mid-January, Ivins urged readers to stand up against Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.
“We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war,” Ivins wrote in the Jan. 11 column. “We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘Stop it, now!'”
Ivins’ best-selling books included those she co-authored with Lou Dubose about Bush. One was titled “Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush” and another was “BUSHWHACKED: Life in George W. Bush’s America.”
Dubose, who has been working on a third book with Ivins, said even last week in the hospital, Ivins wanted to talk about the book.
“She was married to her profession, she lived for the story,” he said.
Ivins’ jolting satire was directed at people in positions of power. She maintained that aiming it at the powerless would be cruel.
“The trouble with blaming powerless people is that although it’s not nearly as scary as blaming the powerful, it does miss the point,” she wrote in a 1997 column. “Poor people do not shut down factories. … Poor people didn’t decide to use `contract employees’ because they cost less and don’t get any benefits.”
In an Austin speech last year, former President Bill Clinton described Ivins as someone who was “good when she praised me and who was painfully good when she criticized me.”
Ivins loved to write about politics and called the Texas Legislature, which she playfully referred to as “The Lege,” the best free entertainment in Austin.
“Naturally, when it comes to voting, we in Texas are accustomed to discerning that fine hair’s-breadth worth of difference that makes one hopeless dipstick slightly less awful than the other. But it does raise the question: Why bother?” she wrote in a 2002 column about a California political race.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom Ivins had playfully called “Gov. Goodhair”, praised Ivins for her wit and insight. “Molly Ivins’ clever and colorful perspectives on people and politics gained her national acclaim and admiration that crossed party lines,” Perry said in a statement.
She referred to conservative Panhandle Rep. Warren Chisum, a favorite target, as “the Bible-thumping dwarf from Pampa.”
Chisum said that if Ivins didn’t agree with him, he was doing the right thing.
“She was magical in her writing,” said Mike Blackman, a former Star-Telegram executive editor who hired Ivins in 1992. “She could turn a phrase in such a way that a pretty hard-hitting point didn’t hurt so bad.”
Born Mary Tyler Ivins in California, she grew up in Houston. She graduated from Smith College in 1966 and attended Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She also studied for a year at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris.
Her first newspaper job was in the complaint department of the Houston Chronicle. She worked her way up at the Chronicle, then went on to the Minneapolis Tribune, becoming the first woman police reporter in the city.
An Ivins bio on the Creators Syndicate Web site said Ivins counted as her highest honors that the Minneapolis police force named its mascot pig after her and that she was once banned from the campus of Texas A&M University.
In the late 1960s, according to Creators Syndicate, she was assigned to a beat called “Movements for Social Change” and wrote about “angry blacks, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers.”
Ivins later became co-editor of The Texas Observer, a liberal Austin-based biweekly publication of politics and literature that was founded more than 50 years ago. Ivins was the featured attraction in October at a huge Texas Observer fundraising “barbecue,” at which politicians, journalists and entertainers honored her.
She joined The New York Times in 1976. She worked first as a political reporter in New York and later was named Rocky Mountain bureau chief, covering nine mountain states.
But Ivins’ use of salty language and her habit of going barefoot in the office were too much for the Times, said longtime friend Ben Sargent, editorial cartoonist with the Austin American-Statesman.
“She was just like a force of nature,” Sargent said. “She was just always on and sharp and witty and funny and was one of a kind.”
“For all of the things you think about her being so witty and sharp, what comes through in her writing to me is, … she had a limitless optimism about human nature,” he said.
Ivins returned to Texas as a columnist for the Dallas Times-Herald in 1982, and after it closed she spent nine years with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In 2001, she went independent and wrote her column for Creators Syndicate.
Ivins won the William Allen White Award from the University of Kansas and the Smith Medal from Smith College in 2001.
She received the 2003 Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Progress and Service.
In 2003, she also won the Pringle Prize for Washington Journalism from Columbia University and the Eugene V. Debs Award in the field of journalism. In 2004, she received the David Brower Award for journalism from the Sierra Club.
In 1995, conservative humorist Florence King accused Ivins in “American Enterprise” magazine of plagiarism for failing to properly credit King for several passages in a 1988 article in “Mother Jones.” Ivins apologized, saying the omissions were unintentional and pointing out that she credited King elsewhere in the piece.
She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, and she had a recurrence in 2003. Her latest diagnosis came around Thanksgiving 2005. After her most recent recurrence, Ivins said she wasn’t giving in to the illness.
“Maybe this is false bravado,” she told the Austin American-Statesman in early 2006. “In some ways for me, this is like having a manageable disease. It’s like diabetes. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to come get me in the end.”
She is survived by her brother, Andy Ivins, of London, Texas; her sister, Sara Maley of Albuquerque, N.M.; two nephews and two nieces.