It has the subtitle Politics in the Clinton Years. Trouble is, in the week since first arranging to talk with newspaper columnist Molly Ivins about You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You, politics and Clinton both have done a wild 360, and neither Ivins nor anybody else knows if the truck stops here . . . or keeps on spinning.
Brash, funny, sharp-penned, and liberal, Ivins has never been happy defending Clinton. "If left to my own devices, I’d spend all my time pointing out that he’s weaker than bus-station chili," she writes. "But the man is so constantly subjected to such hideous and unfair abuse that I wind up standing up for him on the general principle that some fairness should be applied." Besides, Ivins adds, "No one but a fool or a Republican ever took him for a liberal."
Now she tells me that in light of Clinton’s recent troubles, she’s rewritten the book’s introduction. "Remember that metaphor that the Republicans keep trying to hang Clinton but the rope keeps breaking? It may be that this rope isn’t going to break. I thought I should go back and acknowledge that."
It’s not the only tough-minded acknowledgment Ivins makes in this vastly entertaining collection. In a piece called "What I Did to Morris Udall," she remembers an unfair profile she wrote about Representative Udall during his 1976 presidential bid, and concludes, "My continuing regret is that what I wrote was accurate, but it wasn’t true. I was trying too hard to be a major-league, hard-hitting journalist that I let the real story go hang itself."
Why don’t her colleagues seem to share her regard for truth and accuracy? "We are seeing the effect of the fractionization of the audience," Ivins says. "Because the audience can be divided into those who needlepoint and those who knit and those who like monster trucks and because they all have separate channels, we’re getting television that appeals to the lowest common denominator. I hold Rupert Murdoch largely responsible for that. But it’s also a function of the way technology and the market works: when you get tabloid television, it drives what we used to call the establishment media."
Often, says Ivins, both the media and politicians "assume that people are dumb. When you dumb down public discourse on the theory that people are just a bunch of boobs who don’t know anything, you do real harm to people. There are two mistakes made in politics. Usually they take a very complex subject and oversimplify it. Every now and again, they take something really simple and make it sound complicated. I don’t do that. Part of what I try to do is prove that this is fascinating stuff. It’s hilariously funny, full of high drama — and low drama — and it affects your life."
The pieces collected here pretty much prove Ivins right. Culled from the hundreds of articles and columns she has written over the past four years, they cover everything from the disastrous effects of Timothy McVeigh’s poor taste in literature to the need to teach Bob Dole to smile. For good measure Ivins also includes a couple of wildly funny pieces on Texas politics and the general weirdness of people in all parts of our great nation, as well as some touching "tributes to souls passing." Never dull, usually hard-hitting, and always vividly written, they leave no doubt why she gets fan letters from truck drivers — as well as political foes.
"My all-time favorite fan letters began: ‘Dear Miz Ivins, I’ve been reading you for ten years now and this is the first time I ever agreed with you,’" Ivins says, then adds, "Great! Keep reading and it might just happen again."
If there’s an overriding theme to You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You, it is the need for campaign finance reform. "Money was always part of politics," Ivins says, "It’s just that in the last decade or so the amount has become staggering. I’m convinced this is the root of the rot in American politics. The quality and kind of legislation we’re seeing reflects increasingly how indebted politicians are to the people with money. It’s really fouled up democracy."
Ivins is someone who "actually likes politicians, which is so socially unacceptable these days that I’m looking for some other perversion — perhaps inter-species breeding — so that people might not look at me so askance." But politicians "spend half their lives kissing somebody’s rear end. It’s a dreadful situation for a public servant to have to be in. It is a little ironic that they won’t get off the dime and help themselves out, since they know what the penalties are."
One of those penalties is to feel the scorching heat of Ivins in high-dudgeon. But for all her sharp-tongued barbs, Ivins says, "I have never been able to permanently piss off a politician. It used to amaze me when I first started writing about the legislature for a small progressive publication called the Texas Monthly. I would regularly cuss legislators out and say things like they were egg-sucking child molesters who ran on all fours. I actually hoped to become a martyr for journalism. I couldn’t wait to be horsewhipped. But all that ever happened was that I would see them in the capitol the next day and they would cradle the article in their arms and croon ‘Isn’t that nice? You put my name in your paper.’ They were discouragingly civilized."
In conversation, so is Molly Ivins. She’s also a "congenital optimist" who thinks "we should be cheerful about the here and now on the principle that it can always get worse and then we will never have been cheerful at all."
But the true key to her success? "One of the things that probably makes me worth reading is that I stay the hell away from Washington, D.C. It’s a city where everybody says exactly what everybody else says. And I don’t have to spend more than ten minutes in Washington before I find myself saying exactly the same thing too."
So let the campaign begin: For the sake of journalism, for the sake of that odd endangered species — the American liberal — and for the good of the nation’s political funnybone, keep Molly Ivins the hell out of Washington, D.C., and deep in the heart of Texas instead.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California.