'Who's It Screw, and Who's Doing the Screwing?'

Jawin' with Molly Ivins, America's funniest hell raiser.

Within a respectful time after her dog Shit died, Molly Ivins began looking for another pet. She hoped to name it Achilles. "Then I'd get to command 'Achilles! Heel!'" she explains in her trademark Texas drawl. Such is the brand of wit that has sustained Ivins as a political columnist of three decades standing. She's syndicated in 200 newspapers nationwide, has thrice been nominated for the Pulitzer, is a favorite TV and radio commentator, and has taught political journalism at Berkeley and a host of prestigious universities. But to hear Ivins tell it, as she did last week during a stop in Seattle to publicize her new book, You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years,she's been laughing to keep from crying over a political system that's supposed to be accountable to a democracy. Her latest collection of columns covers everything from the corporate rental of Congress to the plight of poor children under welfare "de-form." Tagged as a "feminazi" by the radical right, she writes passionately and succinctly about hate in the days of Republican revolutionary rage, the corporate welfare wasteland that persists in its aftermath, and the need for journalism to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." But to label Ivins simply political is to deny her appeal as a humorist and a humanist. Rosalind Alexander: Your book begins with commentary on the Lewinsky scandal; since the book's publication, the Paula Jones case has been thrown out. Any late-breaking thoughts? Molly Ivins: The original introduction was written last August. [When the scandal broke] I stopped the presses—which you don't do in publishing. I got the intro back, but I really didn't change much. I thought it was unwise for us to start down this road years ago when we hounded Gary Hart out of the presidential race. I have been watching politicians for 30 years, and I have never found a correlation between marital fidelity and high performance in public office. So I just decided a long time ago, I don't care who they screw in private, as long as they're not screwing the public. Alexander: Clinton still has a couple of years left in office. What legacy piece do you hope to add at the end of his proverbial day? Ivins: I just judge the guy as a politician. He's interesting to watch. The best description I ever got of Clinton was from an Arkansas state senator who had worked with him for 10 years. He said that Clinton was like a broad-bottomed children's toy. You top him over, he pops back up. You top him over, he pops back up again. My favorite example of the way he works politically is hysterical. Two years ago, he came to Congress to ask for an appropriation of $5 billion to fix public schools. Now we're talking about one-third of public schools in this country somewhere between dilapidated and flat falling apart. Best estimate is that it will cost about $100 billion to fix this. So what do we have Clinton asking for? Five billion. A mere gesture at the problem. A little something to make you feel that at least the problem is being addressed. He goes back this year, he has a proposal for a $20 billion bond issue. Private money this time. So now we're looking at $40 billion­$50 billion to fix up the public schools. I think that's the way Clinton works as a politician. He'll try something, not very well, and get shot down. Then he'll come back and try something else. He is a very shrewd politician; he's good at getting things done. His weakness is he doesn't have a hard ball. Think what Lyndon Johnson would have done to anybody who dared to criticize him the way Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich criticize Clinton. He would have had their balls, if you pardon my language. Alexander: How do you select items for your columns? Ivins: I almost hate to talk about being a columnist. It seems so self-indulgent. Country singers talk about how hard it is to be a country singer. It always seems to me that there are a million things to write about. I read five, six, seven, eight newspapers a day. Anything that makes me laugh out loud or makes me furious, I've got to comment on it. Most of the time there is, if anything, a superfluity of material to write about. And because I try to look at politics not as a spectrum that runs from right to left, but a scale that runs from top to bottom. Then the only political question is: Who's it screw, and who's doing the screwing? Alexander: You're a liberal who advocates for the poor and the powerless when nobody else in politics seems to give a damn. What keeps you going in the face of such odds? Ivins: Once a month I make a pro bono speech on the First Amendment, and I deliberately go to places where they don't hear from many liberals. I wind up spending time in some amazing backwaters. And the people I meet in these unlikely places have paid the ultimate price in standing up for the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Some of them have had their homes burned; they've lost their jobs. It gets tough. And it's meeting these people who really are heroes that prevents me from feeling sorry for myself. Alexander: Some of the columns in the book date back to 1993. Aren't you afraid public memory is too short to keep the context of the times fresh in the reader's mind? Ivins: You get that sort of yesterday's news problem. I started out thinking: They want a book about politics in the Clinton years? What a dog's breakfast! What are the themes in this mess? And it's surprising how clearly the theme of money in politics came to the fore. I don't think there was ever a time when money was not important in politics. The single most striking development in American politics is the extent to which money is so predominant that everything else including the public interest is insignificant. I think that's the real story. Alexander: What's your conclusion? Will the government get off the corporate payroll? Ivins: I'm always optimistic. We forget that many politicians really are decent people. They don't like being whores. They don't like kissing people's behinds for money. They hate this system. If you gave them a chance, they'd get rid of it. Their own leaders had to go out of their way to stop them. Let me end by just preaching a little more. Don't give up on politics. Don't reject it. It's not only our responsibility to make this country work more fairly than it does now. It's also a helluva lot of fun. There are very few things more fun than raising hell for the good of the people.

 
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