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Don't Mess With This Texan

Molly Irvins fires up the grill to roast Dubya


Published August 6, 2003 at 8:36 p.m.

Every week, progressives and civil libertarians everywhere breathe a collective sigh of relief that syndicated political columnist Molly Ivins is out beating the Bushes. Her continuing mission: to expose the gags in John Ashcroft's gag orders, to diffuse this administration's weapons of mass distraction, and to keep the world safe from corporate shysters and power-drunk public servants. This Saturday night, Ivins brings her feisty brand of populism to Burlington for a fundraiser to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

Years ago, the redheaded Texas firebrand earned a reputation down in Alamo Country as "that uppity wimmin arthur" who can drink, cuss and spit with the best of them. Her brash, folksy wit is as prickly as west Texas barbed wire, lacerating everyone from Brownsville bubbas to the Washington "Bushwazee." When it comes to kicking around the Radical Right, few national journalists have as swift and sure a boot as Ivins. For more than two decades, she has been on the front lines of the social-justice movement pointing out which of the 10-gallon hats in "gov'mint" are brimming with hooey and hokum. And there's no 10-gallon hat more full of it than George W. Bush himself, whom Ivins gave his now-popular moniker, "Shrub."

But don't let Ivins' colorful colloquialisms fool you -- she's no lummox from Lubbock. Ivins got her B.S. -- the degree, that is -- from Smith College and her Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, and she studied at the Institute of Political Science in Paris. Ivins literally rose from the streets -- she began her writing career as the "sewer editor" for the Houston Chronicle -- before moving on to the "social change" beat at the Minneapolis Tribune and later, the political beat at The New York Times.

In 1982, Ivins returned to Texas, where she's been raising a ruckus for her national audience ever since. A relentless Bushwhacker in such publications as Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Harper's, Mother Jones and The Progressive, she's a self-described expert on senior and junior. Her two best-selling books, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? and Nothin' But Good Times Ahead, are both collections of essays on politics and journalism. Ivins has also been a finalist three times for the Pulitzer Prize -- alas, always a bridesmaid, never a bride -- and won the 1992 Headliners Award for best column in Texas. She often notes that her two greatest honors were that the Minneapolis police force named its mascot pig after her and that she was once banned from the campus of Texas A&M.

This week, Seven Days talked with Ivins at her home in Austin, Texas:

Seven Days: So, George Bush has certainly made your job easier as a political columnist, hasn't he?

Molly Ivins: (Laughs) You know, I've known him since we were in high school and I just accidentally became an expert on him. I mean, there he was.

SD: Do you ever wonder how different this country would be today if Governor Ann Richards had run a better race against Bush in 1994?

MI: Yes, that has often occurred to me. I've spoken to her sternly about that. That was a real "God, gays and guns" election. Ann's staff had a joke that you had to put a bumper sticker on your car and drive through East Texas and anybody who made it back to Waco alive was the winner. And the bumper sticker had to say, "I'm the queer Ann sent here to take your gun away."

SD: There's this idea going around lately that George Bush believes he's on a religious crusade and God has chosen him as our leader for these troubled times. Do you think he really believes this stuff, or is it just the Washington spin machine in action?

MI: Well, none of us really knows anybody else's heart on a subject like religion. But as near as I can tell, he does have a deep streak of religiosity. And it comes in that funny Texas combination of religion, anti-intellectualism and machismo all wrapped up together. It's a characteristic Texas cultural mix, and he's very culturally identified as a Texan -- unlike his daddy, who was a real upper-class Eastern WASP. Then there's the extent to which Bush is just another upper-class white boy out trying to prove he's tough.

SD: You were a big Nader supporter during the 2000 presidential election, weren't you?

MI: Not a big Nader supporter, but I voted for him because it was a safe vote. We were trading out votes with people in other states.

SD: Who are you backing this time?

MI: No one so far. I'm still undecided. I want to keep looking them over. Unlike most Democrats, I'm not at all depressed about this bunch. The opposition party's candidates always look like pygmies at this point. Several of them are coming along nicely. Now, Howard Dean of Vermont has 2 percent of the polls with the full weight of Vermont behind him there. That's the kind of guy I'd usually be supporting (laughs).

SD: Does it surprise you that many Vermonters are lukewarm on Dean?

MI: No, not at all, for two reasons. One is that most politicians are without respect in their own country. That's pretty characteristic... Two, I understand that as a governor Dean was not regarded as particularly liberal.

SD: Anyone else in the Democratic field who stands out for you?

MI: Well, [John] Kerry is showing a little bit of promise. For a while there I thought he was a no-hoper, kind of a minus-zero on the Elvis Scale. But he's actually developed a nice wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, which is a pleasant change. I think Bob Graham out of Florida is worth looking at. Initially, John Edwards struck me as too pretty and too light, but he's got a good populist streak he's been running on. His daddy worked in a mill for 37 years.

SD: Why do you think the Democrats have gone so easy on Bush, especially with so much ammunition in their arsenal?

MI: It is an absolute puzzle to me. After 9/11 one could see a "let's all unite and pull together" attitude. But that it has gone on for so long as it has in the face of just disastrous policies is amazing to me. The reason I opposed the war in Iraq was that I predicted it would be a short, easy war followed by the peace from hell. And I think that's just what we've gotten ourselves into.

SD: Of all the things that Bush has done since he took office, what do you think he'll be remembered for as the worst?

MI: I really think that the tax cuts have been a terrible mistake. It's not just making the tax structure more regressive. It's just such a stupid move economically. It doesn't help the economy to give tax cuts to the rich. I mean, a $455 billion deficit? I really think that's his legacy so far.

SD: So why haven't more Americans picked up on that fact?

MI: Well, it's interesting. I just finished a book I wrote with Lou Dubose. He's the guy I wrote SHRUB with. It's called Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America. I'm never above a bad pun. We really weren't writing about Bush. We were writing about the country. What we did in every chapter was take some piece of policy that had been changed by this administration and then show how it was affecting "average Americans in their everyday lives," in the old cliche. Of course, nobody we met was average. They were all wonderful people. But they are all getting screwed. And what's disconcerting is how few of them have connected the dots to realize that a decision that somebody made in Washington is responsible for this part of their life being a mess.

SD: Any good tidbits from the book you'd be willing to share?

MI: Oh, sure. There's a guy in Washington named Eugene Scalia. His daddy is on the Supreme Court. He had made a very handsome living for many years lobbying for business interests against ergonomic regulations to prevent repetitive stress injury. And for 12 years the federal government had been trying to figure out what to do about repetitive stress injuries because six million Americans a year get knocked out of work from that. After 12 years under both Republicans and Democrats, they had finally come up with this set of regulations that everybody had had their input and agreed on. And Clinton put it into the Federal Register and it should have been official at that point. But then Bush came in and named Eugene Scalia solicitor of the Department of Labor, which was kind of like a cruelty joke. And the Republicans killed off the ergonomic regs.

So Lou and I went down to Belzoni, Mississippi, to talk to a bunch of very nice black ladies who work in the Delta Pride Catfish factory. They have to kill, skin and gut 12 fish every minute. By the time they're 30, their hands look like they have rheumatoid arthritis. Now, none of these women had ever heard of Eugene Scalia. In fact, they had never heard of ergonomics. But we're telling them the story how Scalia was calling it "junk science" and they were just fabulous. One of them said, "That be junk science? That be junk science? You tell that man I want his ass next to me on the cut-and-gut line. I'll show him junk science!" So tough, so funny, so irreverent.

SD: This speaking tour --

MI: Actually, it's not a tour. I do a speech every month pro bono. I usually speak for First Amendment groups, quite often the ACLU.

SD: What are you going to speak about in Burlington?

MI: Well, one of my missions in life is to cheer up civil libertarians, who tend to be a gloomy lot, forever hearing the sound of jack-booted fascism around the nearest corner. What I do is travel around and talk about how to have fun while fighting for freedom, which I consider a very important element in all this.

SD: How do you have fun?

MI: Oh! Well, you're just gonna have to come hear my speech. Believe me, it's entirely possible. In fact, it's necessary.

Molly Ivins will speak at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington this Saturday, Aug. 9, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 for the talk only, $50 for the talk and reception; available at the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington or Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. Ivins will also hold a book signing at Bear Pond on Friday, Aug. 8, at 7 p.m.

Bushwacking Words

Like a witness to a serious car accident, Molly Ivins has been on the scene from the get-go for George W. Bush's political ascendancy. What follows are some of her assessments of Dubya's strengths and foibles:

-"The political career of W. Bush is a fairly funny yarn, on account of being the son of a former president is to put this...not actually sufficient job training for the governance of a large state. Fortunately, in Texas, this makes no difference."

-"Of Bush's credentials as an economic conservative, there is no question at all -- he owes his political life to big corporate money; he's a CEO's wet dream. He carries their water, he's stumpbroke -- however you put it, George W. Bush is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. We don't think this is a consequence of political calculation; it's more a consequence of his life experience, political thinking and party affiliation. We can find no evidence that it has ever occurred to him to question whether it is wise to do what big business wants. He is perfectly comfortable, perfectly at home, doing the bidding of big bidness."

-"[George W. Bush's] oil-field career can be summed up in a single paragraph. George W. arrived in Midland in 1975, set up a shell company, lost a congressional election in 1978, restarted the company he'd put on hold, lost more than $2 million of other people's money, and left Midland with $840,000 in his pocket. Not bad for a guy who showed up with an Olds and $18K."

-"Professional baseball was a great fit for Bush. Teams filled with Christian evangelicals, high-stakes deals with other people's money, a kids' game for grown-up men. ... It's a wonder Bush left baseball to run for a job the speaker of the Texas House says 'involves an awful lot of ribbon cuttin' and not enough power.'"

-"For an upper-class white boy, Bush comes on way too hard-ass -- at a guess, to make up for being an upper-class white boy. But it's also a common Texas male trait. Somebody should probably be worrying about how all this could affect his handling of future encounters with some Saddam Hussein..."

-"Some who know the Bush family well believe Dubya ran against [Ann] Richards at least in part out of a vindictive grudge stemming from her making fun of his daddy. Richards' favorite line about Big George -- 'born with a silver foot in his mouth' -- was a zinger for the anthologies, and according to some sources, there are grudge-holding Bushes. President Bush, always gracious, had a silver pin in the shape of a foot made up and presented it to Richards, who was quite fond of wearing it. W. Bush himself says he is more like his mother."

-"Texas pols like to git tuff on crime, welfare, commies and other bad stuff. Bush proposed to git tuff on welfare recipients by ending the allowance for each additional child -- which in Texas is $38 a month."

-"George W. Bush was not Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, but he understands: You got to dance with them what brung you. He has learned to dance with the Christian right. It has been interesting and amusing to watch the process. Interesting because it's sometimes hard to tell who's leading and who's following..."

-"Dubya takes care of bidness. While he was fighting to deny children health care, he was personally flogging the only bill he designated 'emergency legislation': his $45 million tax break for owners of marginally producing oil wells. 'There's a lot of people hurting,' said Bush, the bleeding heart. Bush sold this tax break as one that would benefit only the owners of itty-bitty oil wells. Turns out that most of the marginal wells were owned by Exxon."

-"Bush also came out against a bill that would have prohibited the use of the death penalty against profoundly retarded criminals.'ve met Labrador retrievers brighter than some of the people Texas executes. Bush's sole explanation for his position was, 'I like the law the way it is right now.'"

-"Everything he said was vapid. The dread gravitas question raised its ugly head -- when asked to name his favorite political philosopher, he replied, 'Jesus Christ,' startling many who had never encountered Jesus in a political science course."

-"He flubbed memorably on foreign leaders while on TV in Boston, then got in deeper by responding to a Canadian satirist's announcement that Bush has been endorsed by Prime Minister Jean Poutine. No only is Poutine not the prime minister (it's a Canadian snack food) but Bush also graciously accepted the endorsement, having no idea that for a foreign leader to make an endorsement in another country's political process is the stuff of which ambassadorial recalls are made."

-"It is true that Bush has difficulty expressing himself in the English language; on the other hand, you can usually tell what he meant to say. His daddy was often perfectly impenetrable, and we all survived. W. is highly unlikely to ever throw up on the prime minister of Japan, have an affair with a White House intern or declare war on Grenada."

-"Bush is a little vague on a lot of things -- like foreign policy -- but, hey, Ronald Reagan served with advancing Alzheimer's -- how bad can this be?