Award-winning columnist to speak at U

Joel Sawyer

Molly Ivins has never been afraid to say what she thinks. The nationally syndicated political columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has skewered politicians for years with her razor-sharp wit, incisive criticism and off-color humor.
Her columns, which range from commentaries on welfare reform to the wacky side of Texas politics and American culture, appear three times a week in more than 100 newspapers nationwide.
Ivins brings her talents to the Cowles Auditorium of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs tonight, where she is the featured speaker for the 1997 Frank Premack Lecture Series and Journalism Awards Program.
The series, which has been held annually since 1977, honors Premack, the former city editor of the Minneapolis Tribune and Ivins’ one-time boss.
Ivins, 52, worked at the Tribune from 1967-70, reporting about the police department and social issues.
Ivins said she covered “militant blacks, angry Indians, radical students, uppity women and a motley assortment of other misfits and troublemakers.”
Ivins also wrote the best-selling column collection, “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” and is the former co-editor of the liberal monthly Texas Observer and the former Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The New York Times.
She also worked for the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Times-Herald. Ivins has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times and has won numerous journalism awards.

The Daily recently spoke with Ivins about tonight’s speech, her memories of Minneapolis and Frank Premack, and American politics.

Daily: Your columns are generally scathing attacks on politics and politicians. If you find them so contemptible, why do you continue to write about them?
Ivins: Well, it’s interesting that it comes across that way. I was just thinking when you asked that question how funny peoples’ impressions are. I actually like politicians, but I’m thinking of adopting some more socially acceptable perversion, perhaps interspecies dating.
I do like politicians, and I admire the calling of politics. I think it’s a rather noble endeavor, but like everyone else, I think it’s been completely corrupted by money at this point.

Daily: What do you think of Bill Clinton?
Ivins: I’m probably one of the few people in the country who’ve been neither surprised nor disappointed by President Clinton, probably because I did what political reporters are supposed to do. Before he ran, I went over and looked at the record and looked at the record and looked at the record, and it’s been pretty much what I expected.

Daily: Are there any politicians out there now who you respect and admire?
Ivins: In terms of legislation, (Edward) Kennedy; and your guy, Wellstone, is a pretty good fellow. There are decent people in public life.

Daily: What do you remember about Frank Premack, Minneapolis and working at the Tribune?
Ivins: I remember Premack vividly, of course. What a character, and I must say — talk about not appreciating him at the time — he used to drive me absolutely nuts. God, he was a relentlessly picky bastard as an editor. He was just single-handedly a force for excellence in journalism that was really striking. At the Tribune in my day, Premack by force of personality alone insisted that (the Tribune) be a first-rate newspaper.

Daily: What kind of a personal impact did Premack have on you and your work?
Ivins: I can even to this good day hear his voice in my ear occasionally (saying) ‘get it right, get it right.’

Daily: What would he have thought of your style?
Ivins: Because I write columns, he never would have let me get away with (what I do) in a news story. But I think he would have been amused –he had a good sense of humor.

Daily: What do you recall about Minneapolis?
Ivins: Oh, absolutely marvelous place, loved Minneapolis. It just needs to be shut down for six months out of the year.

Daily: I’d read that the Minneapolis police named their mascot after you.
Ivins: Molly Pig — They used to march it in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Daily: You must have made quite an impression on them.
Ivins: (Laughs) I’m not entirely sure that was intended as flattery, but that’s all right.

Daily: What did you think you did to earn that distinction?
Ivins: In those days, there was a great deal of hostility between the press and the cops. In fact, I became a great fan of the Minneapolis police force, at least under some of the chiefs. In those days, it was one of the best I’d ever seen.

Daily: Why did you leave the Tribune?
Ivins: I was sort of dropping out of establishment journalism when I left. By the end of the ’60s, I was pretty much convinced that the structures of establishment newspapering were getting in the way of doing really good journalism. I don’t think that’s true now. I think it’s loosened up a lot. But in those days the false god of objectivity was still very much revered.
I went back to take over a little magazine in Texas called the Texas Observer, and I thought I would never work for The New York Times or win a Pulitzer Prize — that I was just dropping out to work in political journalism, never to be heard from again. But of course, six years later I was working for The New York Times.

Daily: What’s your speech (tonight) going to be about?
Ivins: I want to talk about journalism and where it is now. I know that sounds like heavy pontificating, but I’ve just finished three months teaching at the journalism school at Cal–Berkeley, and the wonderful thing about teaching is it really does give you a chance to quit looking down, you know, putting one foot in front of the other, one deadline after another, and to look up and around a bit.
Before you teach something, you really have to think through what you do and why you do it. I came away with some ideas and insights I want to talk about. I just wish Frank was still around so we could have a beer and have a great bullshit session about all this stuff. I’d just love to hear his reaction to it.

Daily: What is it about Texas and Texas politicians that provide so much fodder for your writing?
Ivins: I’ve never really been able to explain the cause. I just know that the phenomenon is true. Things and people are a little larger than life, but always in sort of a pie-eyed way.

Daily: Is there any chance Texas will secede again from the Union?
Ivins: (Laughs) We have some friendly right-wing lunatics who are trying to get us to secede again, but no, I don’t think so. I think we may get kicked out.

Daily: What keeps you going? What inspires you to continue writing?
Ivins: Fundamentally, I really believe in democracy. I really do think democracy is a wonderful idea, and I love to get people excited by it, involved in it, and I love to make people laugh about it. All too often we take our politics too seriously and get very angry when we should really be enjoying the entertainment factor.

Daily: What is the most challenging and rewarding thing you have done in your career?
Ivins: Boy, (laughs) what a question, it’s an invitation to self-importance.

Daily: Here’s your chance.
Ivins: Well, I’ve always said we can kill bad bills, but we hardly ever pass good bills, in terms of the influence you have on the way things actually go. I have knocked off some bad bills in my time and saved the taxpayers a little money — let us not forget that, for our friends on the right.
Oh, if anything, I hope that I’ve given people an honest read on the way things really work in politics and that they’re part of it. People think they have no influence over all this, they look at it and they think ‘God, those people in Washington, those people in the Capitol, those people in St. Paul, what can you do about them?’
The feeling that we actually run the country — which we do — is disappearing, and I think we need to be aware that it’s really up to us.