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‘Raise Hell’ captures Molly Ivins — and includes her time at the Minneapolis Tribune

Molly Ivins
Magnolia Pictures
A still from the documentary "Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins."

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. 

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/11/2019 - 09:31 am.

    I can imagine G_d paling at her comments about Trump.
    She may convince him to chuck a lighting bolt or two.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/11/2019 - 09:35 am.

    Years ago, Ivins was part of my introduction to political commentary, and remained among my favorites until her death. RIP, Molly.

  3. Submitted by Bruce Adomeit on 09/11/2019 - 11:03 am.

    The pig was just “Molly” — no last name was necessary. The cops acquired it after Ivins became the Tribune’s police reporter and moved into a small office in City Hall, down the corridor from their space.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/11/2019 - 11:07 am.

    And on GHWB:

    “He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

    And a really funny Bill Orielly / Al Franken and a little Molly Ivins screaming match:

    Oh for the fun she would have had writing about President Donald Trump…

  5. Submitted by Ron Way on 09/11/2019 - 12:03 pm.

    Thank you (again) Eric for a fine piece on a wonderful woman. I considered Molly Ivins a good friend; she was on my side of the newsroom and we frequently went to lunch with a good soul, desk editor Bob Crabb (his good spirits were fueled by the bottle of brandy he kept at the ready in his desk drawer). Once, when I worked in Washington for the late U,S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, Molly was in town on assignment for the NYTimes. We went for an early beverage lunch and laughed so hard and long that we stayed for a late dinner. She was so damn funny. Once, during a brief radio gig at KSTP-AM, I played golf with Jason Lewis (also a funny man) and told him he’d love Molly even though the two were political opposites. I suggested lunch with her sometime, but it never worked out… The world would be a much better place if it’d have a long lunch with Molly…

  6. Submitted by Michael McGuire on 09/11/2019 - 03:25 pm.

    Having come to adulthood in seminary in Ft. Worth, TX, I laughed and cried and became a liberal with the hejp of Molly Ivins.

  7. Submitted by Nathan Bowe on 09/11/2019 - 03:38 pm.

    I always enjoyed her columns — she was a great supporter of bidness interests in Texas…

  8. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 09/11/2019 - 08:43 pm.

    She is still well respected by people in the know in Texas….Ahh if only she were still with us….she would rip this current presidential impostor a new one.

  9. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/11/2019 - 09:22 pm.

    The “Shrub” references are my first recollection of a pundit referring to a sitting President in a disrespectful way (regularly) while I also remember the President not holding it against a fellow Texan.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 09/12/2019 - 09:34 am.

      Funny, you must have missed the Clinton years. I wasn’t just pundits referring to him in a disrespectful way.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/12/2019 - 06:02 pm.

        I do recall some “Slick Willy” comments but I’m not sure that I remember weekly major columnists disparaging the President so often. But again, I’m just reporting my memory and not declaring it official history.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/12/2019 - 12:49 pm.

      That was when president’s had a sense of humor.

  10. Submitted by Deborah Gelbach on 09/13/2019 - 12:02 pm.

    Thank you for this, Eric. I love your piece! It took me back to the fun she gave us–and the perpetual reminder that what was going on was ridiculous–especially at such a naive point in history when many of us felt: “how is it possible that our democracy permitted us to elect a president as bad as this?” If we only knew then what we know now.

  11. Submitted by richard owens on 09/13/2019 - 02:53 pm.

    “Texas has always been the national laboratory for bad government.”


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