Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Remembrance of Molly Ivins


[NOTE: Guest writer Bud Wurtz had the luck to spend an evening with Molly Ivins.  Here's his story.  It provides unique background to ACA Austin's event celebrating the new reach of the the Austin creativity association on Sunday, March 6 at Zach Theatre's "Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins."  For more information on ACA Austin go to: Thanks, Bud.]

By (c) William (“Bud”) Wurtz
Board Member, American Creativity Association - Austin

I had the privilege of spending an evening with Molly Ivins back in June 2005. Molly had come to College Station, Texas speak to the Brazos Valley chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

I was the chapter president at the time, and Molly’s appearance was a life-saver for the group. A few like-minded civil libertarians had banded together as Board members to revitalize the chapter, situated in the shadow of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on  the Texas A&M University campus.

Of course, it was the first President Bush who had famously stigmatized Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign for being “a card-carrying ACLU member”; this, along with the notorious Willie Horton ad, is (probably) what helped Bush beat Dukakis.

The damage to the ACLU has lingered past that particular campaign, to some extent marginalizing the organization. It is though this group, devoted to defending the Bill of Rights and extending its protections to all Americans, became in the public’s mind somehow responsible for the putative breakdown in law-and-order. Mr. Bush’s was a popular view in the very conservative precincts of south central Texas and no doubt helps explain why the chapter had become moribund in the first place.  Molly, a proud member of and staunch advocate for the ACLU, was particularly scornful of her fellow Texans “tuff on crime” attitudes.

Our ACLU chapter was hoping that a “big-name” speaker of some sort would bring much needed attention and revenues to our struggling cause. Since we had no money to pay for travel or an honorarium, we needed someone who had some name recognition, was somehow at least vaguely associated with civil liberties, lived within driving distance, and would be willing to come to College Station and speak for free. These exacting requirements made for a very short list of possibilities, but Molly’s name was on it. And to our great surprise and delight, she readily agreed to do a presentation based on readings from her many books and articles.

I was to learn during the presentation why Molly accepted our offer. Though she won numerous prestigious awards for journalism over her lifetime, Molly claimed in her mischievous manner that thetwo greatest honors accorded her were 1) having the pig mascot of the Minneapolis police department named after her and 2) being banned from speaking on the campus of Texas A&M University. What could please a committed civil libertarian more than the opportunity to exercise her First Amendment rights within a couple of blocks of where she had been forbidden to speak?

(I should probably explain here that I was in College Station attending A&M at the time, and that I am an loyal Aggie grad – PhD 2008 – who is proud of my school’s outstanding record of academic excellence and its many grand traditions and spirit. That said, it must also be noted that no one is likely to confuse the political leanings, culture and lifestyle of the A&M campus and its environs, situated in the twin cities of Bryan-College Station, Texas with, say, the University of California – Berkeley and the Bay Area.)

With Molly booked, I and the other Board members confidently began our planning for the event.  Dreaming big, we projected the event would attract as many as 75 people, this despite the fact that  College Station would be in its typical summer lull at the end of the academic year. (Even a couple of Board members couldn’t attend because they had already booked foreign travel during the summer.)  So I trudged down to the College Station Hilton and put my credit card down to reserve a sliver of the mammoth ballroom.

We then began our sophisticated advertising campaign promoting Molly’s appearance with free promos on the progressive community radio station and with photocopied flyers posted on the bulletin boards of area retail stores and restaurants, along with plain old word-of-mouth. And the ticket requests started to roll in … and then more … and then more … until we had received a total of just under 400 orders. I had to go back to the hotel to book more space; eventually we booked the entire ballroom.

We were flabbergasted. So was the State ACLU staff who drove Molly – one of their most prized assets, whom they determinedly protected --over from Austin for the event. I had told the executive director in advance that Molly’s appearance was becoming the big social event of the summer in College Station.  But he remained skeptical until he escorted Molly into the ballroom and saw the hordes of people waiting to hear her. At that point his jaw dropped, followed by a grin as large as Texas.

I first actually met Molly after introducing her and welcoming her to the lectern. She was slender, her hair curly and short that particular evening, dressed simply in recognition of having to endure the 180-mile round trip between Austin and College Station in a crowded van on a typically hot-and-humid Texas
summer day.

She captivated the audience from the very start, reading her pieces in that distinctive Texas accent, seasoned with her sly, low key wit. The end of each reading was greeted with loud guffaws and enthusiastic applause.

My favorite reading performed by Molly that evening was this one, found in her book, Who Let the Dogs In?: Incredible Political Animals I Have Known (New York: Random House, 2004, pp. 246-7).

“On a blazing hot summer day last year, the director of the Central Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union was frantically phoning members to announce that the First Amendment was in peril from the Austin City Plan Commission. The First Amendment tends to be under steady fire in the Great State, but the Austin City Plan Commission is rarely found on the side of jackbooted fascism. What happened was, the Reverend Mark Weaver, a  fundamentalist divine with a strong local following, hell-bent on driving all the dirty bookstores out of town – he had come up with a zoning scheme by which this was to be accomplished.

The Plan Commission held a hearing that night attended by more than three hundred members of Weaver’s group, Citizens Against Pornography, and by six members of the Civil Liberties Union. The Libertarians flocked together. Nothing like sitting in the midst of sea of Citizens Against Pornography to make you notice that your friends all look like perverts.

“The Reverend Weaver rose to address the Commission. An eloquent preacher, he took right off into the tale of a woman who lives directly behind the pornography theater on South Congress Avenue. The very day before, she had watched a man come out of that theater after the five-o’clock show, go into the alley behind the theater, right behind her house, and … masturbate.

Three hundred Citizens Against and the members of the Plan Commission all sucked in their breath in horror. Made a very odd sound. “YES,” continued the Reverend Weaver, “that man MASTURBATED right in the alley, right BEHIND that lady’s house. And she has two little who might have SEEN it – if it weren’t for the wooden fence around her yard.” And with that the Reverend Weaver jerked the stopper and cussed sin up a storm. It looked bad for the First Amendment.

“When it came their turn, the Libertarians huddled together and decided to send up their oldest living member. He shuffled to the mike, gray hair thin on top, a face marked with age spots and old skin cancers, one eye long since. He spoke with a courtly Southern accent. “Members of the Plan Commission, Reverend Weaver, Citizens Against, ladies and gentlemen. My name is John Henry Faulk. I am seventy-four years old. I was born and raised in South Austin, not a quarter ofa mile from where the pornography theater stands today. I think y’all know that there was a lot of masturbation in South Austin before there was ever a pornography theater there.” Even the Citizens Against laughed, and the First was saved for another day.

“Thirty years ago John Henry Faulk destroyed the blacklisting system that had terrified the
entertainment industry during the McCarthy era. His was one of the spectacular show trials of
that sorry time; he won the largest libel award that had been granted in the United States ($3.5 million) and was honored up to his eyebrows by freedom lovers everywhere. Then he went back to Texas – broke, his career still ruined – never saw any of the money, and learned you can’t eat honor. This is the story of John Henry Faulk’s life since Louis Nizer won out over Roy Cohn in their courtroom battle about whether the man called the Will Rogers of his generation was actually a communist.”

It is a classic Molly story, told in her inimitable style. She captures the distinctive dialect of Texans, along with the pomposity of the Great State, driven by a writing style that is understated yet somehow florid at the same time. There is playfulness, along with a hint of naughtiness, but also a more serious purpose. For, of course, once you get past all of the hilarity of people at their silliest, the story is about the tragedy of a good and decent man, a man who despite past defeats continues to stand up for what he believes in well into old age. Molly suckers us in, lowering our defenses with the humor, and then wallops us with a very powerful and pointed punch.

After the reading ended, many of the audience came up to greet Molly, some to get her to autograph their copy of one of Molly’s books. People milled around the ballroom chatting loudly and excitedly for quite some time, a reliable indicator of a successful event. But, finally, as people started to leave and the crowd dwindled, Molly, the ACLU staffers and I adjourned to the hotel bar.

I can’t recall who or when, but sometime that evening someone had whispered to me that there were growing concerns about Molly’s health, fears that her breast cancer, which had twice been battled into remission, might be recurring. (In fact, that diagnosis was confirmed later in the year; she died on January 31, 2007.) Yet Molly was the same bright, funny, sassy person hoisting a few with a small group of friends and supporters as she was on stage. About the only noticeable change was that her disparaging opinions of certain political figures were not quite as understated as in print or at the lectern.

Like her good friend and hero, John Henry Faulk, Molly Ivins fought to the end for what she believed in, for civil liberties and human freedom. Molly fought the good fight, with humor not hatred. She recognized that all people are prone to folly, and the most appropriate remedy is to lampoon it, all the while reveling in and celebrating the great human comedy.

Since graduating and leaving Texas, my energies have been poured more and more into promoting creativity development. I remain a committed ACLU member, though not as active as before, guilty of frequently being late with my membership dues as many impatient renewal notices remind me. But I recognize that the link between civil liberties and creativity is inextricable: you can only be creative to the extent that you are free. The fight is the same. Molly Ivins taught me that you can have one hell of a good time fighting that fight.

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