I first encountered Molly Ivins in the late 1980s, via telephone, engaging in a hilarious conversation about the state of politics in the nation and Texas for a now long-forgotten reason.
And over the years, I had a few beers with the 6-foot-tall, life-of-the party political columnist on my visits to Austin, where she lived, held court and worked for the last two decades of her life.
By then, Ivins had become one of the rarest of creatures -- a widely recognized print journalist who’d found a place in popular culture. She was pointed, often funny and had unwaveringly liberal takes on politics and society that landed her in the chair next to David Letterman and on the best seller lists.
Ivins, along with Hunter S. Thompson, was the journalist I most admired -- and wished I could be like. And, like Hunter, she’s been missed since her death -- in 2005 from cancer -- and, to me, needed now more than ever.
Put at its most basic, I wish the woman who had billboards put up about her in Dallas that read “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?" was around to cut her biting wit on President Trump, the Congress and, of course, The Texas “Lege” which is as right-wing and wacky as it was when Ivins began covering it for the Texas Observer in 1970.
But that’s jumping into the middle of Molly’s story, which is terrifically told in “Raising Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins,” director Janice Engel’s fast-moving, illuminating documentary that’s filled with clips of Ivins -- on C-Span, giving speeches, being interviewed -- that capture the woman I knew in all her profane, principled glory.
The film traces her life -- from growing up in an exclusive neighborhood in Houston, the daughter of a domineering conservative oil-and-gas executive she called “General Jim” -- to Smith College, Columbia University and through reporting jobs at the Houston Chronicle, Minneapolis Tribune and, later, the New York Times.
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But it doesn’t adhere entirely to chronology, letting friends and associates, including kindred spirit, the Texas-true populist Jim Hightower, reflect on various aspects of her life -- like never marrying and her alcoholism -- “out of order,” so to speak.
The Ivins that emerges from the film is a shy woman, who felt she was big and ugly, who transformed from the conservatism with which she was raised to an outspoken liberal, forged by the civil rights movement, a journalist who, rightfully, believed there’s no such thing as “objective” journalism and courageously expressed her beliefs in a state where she knew she’d come under withering criticism.
But, as a Texas GOP house member says in the film, Ivins’ writing was too funny and too dead on to hold a grudge against her, even if you disagreed.
Of course, a couple other Texas politicians play the role in the documentary that they played in Ivins’ life -- then-Gov. George W. Bush, who she called “Shrub” and was one of her targets for decade and her running buddy, the equally outspoken, hilarious liberal Gov. Ann Richards.
But mostly what comes out of “Raising Hell” is a writer who lived by and advocated for her principles -- civil liberties and free speech, civil rights and good, sane government (which even she would have admitted is more fantasy than it will ever be reality).
Watching “Raising Hell,” for me, was a great reminder of Molly and how much she’s missed. The same will likely be true for her legion of fans, who knew her through her syndicated newspaper columns, books and TV appearances.
For those who didn’t encounter her in person or in her writing, “Raising Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” will be the best way to learn about one of the great journalists of our time, and one of the funniest, most insightful, grounded political commentators ever. She's right up there with, as some in the film attest, Mark Twain.