Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins was a reporter, columnist, and self-described populist mainly located in Austin, Texas. Her humorous insights on politics in the Lone Star State and the West have been printed in 10 books, and during the course of her life she won numerous journalism awards and recognitions, including the Eugene Debs Award, the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize, and the David Brower Award. Ivins often claimed that she took the greatest pleasure from having the distinction of being banned from the Texas A&M campus, having the Minneapolis police department's mascot pig named after her, and publicly mooning the Ku Klux Klan. She is most famous for her profiles on the Bush political family and is credited with giving George W. Bush the nickname “Shrub.” She had no fears about confronting the establishment on the local or national level.
Born in Monterey, California, on August 30, 1944, she was raised in Houston, Texas, in the home of her father Jim Ivins, an oil executive. Ivins received a bachelor's degree in history from Smith College and her master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1967. She also studied at Scripps College, Claremont, California, and at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, Sciences Po.
After three summers of interning for the Houston Chronicle, Ivins got her first job at the Minneapolis Tribune, where for three years she was a beat reporter until she got a job back in her home state as the coeditor and political reporter with the Texas Observer in Austin. Her colorful style caught the attention of the New York Times, which offered her the western political beat in 1976. She eventually became the Rocky Mountain bureau chief, with oversight of nine states in that region. Her antiauthority temperament and her folksy style led to clashes with the senior editors of the paper. The most famous of these was a 1980 column in which she described a New Mexico small-town chicken-slaughtering festival as a “gang-pluck.”
In 1981, Ivins returned to Texas as a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald. After a few years, senior management decided to transfer her to their Austin bureau because her humorous barbs had caused a great deal of animosity with city leaders and prominent citizens. During this time, she became popular on the speaking circuit due to her down-home style and lively stories.
In 2001, Ivins was diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancer. Two years later, with her cancer in remission, she left the Star-Telegram to become an independent journalist. When George W. Bush became president of the United States, she enjoyed a new surge of popularity and national attention, especially after the releases of two books with fellow reporter Lou Dobbs, Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush in 2000 and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America three years later.
Molly Ivins's cancer returned in 2003. After undergoing another course of chemotherapy, the cancer appeared to have gone into remission until 2005. Taking leave from her column, she fought the disease over the next few months. She wrote her final two columns just weeks before dying in an Austin hospice on January 31, 2007, at the age of 62.
Ivins described her style of journalism as populist, stating, “A populist is someone who is for the people and against the powerful, and so a populist is generally the same as a liberal—except we tend to have more fun” (Crowther). For her, any institution, organization, or politician that stood in the way of democracy was fair game for lampooning and exposure. She would bristle at claims by people on the Right that she was a socialist, retorting, “I guess I'm a left-libertarian and a populist, and I believe in the Bill of Rights the way some folks believe in the Bible” (Crowther). Through her years of reporting on Texas politics she believed in holding the powerful accountable and took pleasure in pointing out financial connections between corporations and politicians. Just before she died Ivins summed up the thrust of her career: “Either we figure out how to keep corporate cash out of the political system or we lose the democracy” (Crowther). In terms of the continuing public conversation about transparency, she thus summed up the problems that have continued to plague the nation and sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: Bush, George W., Populist Rhetoric of ; Dobbs, Louis Carl (1945–) ; The Press and Populism ; Texas, Populism in
Crowther, Hal. “Reflecting on the Late Molly Ivins, Her New Bio and Her Crusade against Corporatized America: She Told You So.” IndyWeek.com, February 10, 2010. http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/reflecting-on-the-late-molly-ivins-her-new-bio-and-her-crusade-against-corporatized-america/Content?oid=1300158 .
Eugene V. Debs Foundation. http://debsfoundation.org/foundation.html . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage. http://ivanallenprize.gatech.edu/home/ . Accessed January 7, 2013.