Liberals of a certain age, upon hearing the name “Molly Ivins,” will find themselves smiling.
If you’re smiling, plan to see “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins,” a documentary celebrating her life, which opens at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis on Friday.
Ivins was a loud, hilarious, 6-foot-tall progressive journalist from Texas. Although she worked as a young reporter, she is best known for her decades as a crusading columnist, gifted at mocking both convention and conservatism.
(Local angle: On her way to national fame, Ivins worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Observer and the Minneapolis Tribune. If any old Stribbers are reading this, Marilyn Hoegemeyer testifies in the film about Ivins’ Minneapolis period. And, according to the film, reporter Ivins was so hard on the local cops that the Minneapolis Police had a pet pig that they named “Molly.”)
Ivins left us for the New York Times in the early ’70s, and I arrived after that, so I never knew her, but I wish I had.
Ivins was a hilariously poor fit for the staid “grey lady,” as the Times is nicknamed. She constantly scandalized the high-toned editor, Abe Rosenthal, and could not reconcile herself to the conventions of so-called objective journalism. (It was her position that the term “objective journalism” is nonsense. The film includes some great anecdotes from her New York Times period.)
Back in Texas, where she belonged, Ivins wrote a column, which was syndicated nationally, from a base at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. That was the work that turned her into a national liberal icon. She had a particular knack for mocking George W. Bush (she is credited with nicknaming him “Shrub,” and the nickname stuck). This caused some of the conservative Texas papers to buy the exclusive right to her column in their market but never run them, which precluded other papers from publishing them in the same market.
Before I get too far from Ivins’ Minnesota period, I should pass along a famous remark, quoted in the film, which alludes to a famous Minnesotan, in contrast to herself, to describe the “two kinds of humor:”
“There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity — like what Garrison Keillor does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule — that’s what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”
Ivins died at age 62 of cancer in 2007. And I hadn’t thought much about her recently, so I was delighted to be reminded of her life and work when I got to watch a preview showing of the film. (What a gig I have!) Being a liberal of a certain age, it made me smile.
Among those who admired her and are on camera in the film are Dan Rather, Rachel Maddow, and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, with whom she was good buddies.
Ivins was so foul-mouthed, she named her dog “Shit.” As long as I’ve used that word, I’ll double down with one more quote that I managed to scribble in my notebook in the dark as I watched the preview. It seems to have captured her worldview: “We live in a world where shit flows downhill and the people at the bottom are drowning in it.”
And, without benefit of a curse, there’s this quote on her philosophy of writing about politics:
“I figure there’s only three possible reactions to most of politics — you can laugh, you can cry, or you can throw up. You might as well laugh. It’s a better way to live life.”
I guess you have the same three options watching the story of Ivins’ sad, funny, short life. In her honor, I laughed.
(I was taking notes in a dark theater, so forgive me if any of the quotes or details are a little off.)
The film opens Friday at the Lagoon.