Dog Pound 

Populist pundit Molly Ivins rides herd on Washington's big dogs

If I say Molly Ivins is a populist, what does that mean? In the simplest terms, I suppose, it means that she allies herself, philosophically and politically, with "the people" and is suspicious of the powerful, of "elites."

Take the column she once wrote about the feminist-baiting enfant terrible of early '90s academe, Camille Paglia. (Remember her? Queen of inflammatory sound bites like "If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts"?) Ivins did the piece on Paglia only reluctantly, apparently. She writes that when her editor suggested it, she told him, "I'm not good on New York intellectual controversies. ... I'm a no-hoper on this stuff, practically a professional provincial." Anyone who's read any of Ivins' books, essays or widely syndicated columns knows better than to take this confession of provincial anti-intellectualism at face value. Ivins is not only well-read, she's damn smart. The noteworthy thing is the impatience with self-important eggheads. What could be more populist than that?

Ivins is not merely a populist, though. She is a progressive populist. The elites that concern her most are the ones with endless dough -- and the power that goes with it. She doesn't cotton to politicians who carry the water for Big Oil, High Finance and the Military-Industrial Complex. Give her enough rope (which they always do), and she'll string those bastards up, albeit reluctantly.

She'd probably resent that characterization, and with good reason. She may be a committed and cutting political commentator, but she's not a killer. Not even in a metaphorical sense. In fact, some of her sharpest invective is aimed at the mean-spirited, dishonest and poisonous political rhetoric of bully boys like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. That might seem like a contradiction, but it's not. For one thing, her own invective is generally (although not exclusively) less than savage. One of her favorite words is "nincompoop" -- not exactly lethal stuff.

For another thing, she's unrelentingly good-humored, and even her harshest criticism has a teasing quality to it. She's the person who coined the term "Shrub" (as in little Bush) for George W. It's impossible to imagine her in a hatemonger mode -- livid, threatening, face turning red, neck veins popping, hand held high and ready to smite the life from some ideological foe. She's pointed, sure, but within limits. Her limits aren't the debate-deflecting, artificially genteel limits of the comfortably smug, but they are limits that keep basic decency at least within arms' reach.

In fact, I was struck by how many of Ivins' answers in our interview began with a certain amount of fitfulness -- not waffling, mind you, but a reticence that the transcription below may not adequately convey. Her experience of George W. dates back years -- as does her dogging of him -- so I wanted to get her reaction to the national statistics on poverty that came out last week. Was she surprised? Far from leaping at the opportunity to bash Bush, Ivins seemed at least somewhat protective of her fellow Texan. Her immediate response was "It doesn't surprise me," but she immediately added "Although the real question is how much of it should be blamed on Bush." And she only assigned that responsibility to him in a roundabout way. My notes at that point are filled with broken sentences, ellipses. Hesitancy. Molly Ivins is not some unrelenting spitfire, although I have no doubt that she could, and would, spit in your eye if the occasion warranted it.

She is gracious. Our interview was a "squeeze-in" and I barreled through it with the single-mindedness of a man determined to make my word-count, come hell, high water or the imminent arrival of Molly Ivins' ride. If my urgency bothered her, she never let on, remaining sympathetic and unruffled throughout, a sense reinforced by the soothing sounds of k.d. lang playing faintly in the background (I>country k.d. lang, as she termed it). After I hung up, I felt the absence of Ivins and her slightly cadenced Texas accent -- the warmth of it.

The woman, you see, doesn't just extol the virtues of "The People"; she's a populist who genuinely likes people. Her passion for social justice is palpable, but it's never crudely divisive. Never simply "us vs. them." "The Salt of the Earth vs. Rich Mr. Evil." It's this kindness and good-humored connectedness that give her an unmistakable tone. Her newest book, Who Let the Dogs In?, is subtitled "Incredible Political Animals I Have Known." She is, in her own inimitable way, just such a creature. Get to know her.

DB: You're going to be down in Sarasota on Sept. 11. Is the appearance tied in with 9/11 somehow? Is it something you plan to address?

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