Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




February 2, 2007

You could clearly see the change in Molly Ivins’ writing in the last weeks of her life. In large part, gone was the beer-and-bourbon wit that we had come to love so much, along with that Texas way of looking at the world and the people therein that comes across both as straight-ahead and corner-out-the-eye at the same time, simultaneous, like you’re ready to face the world head-on, but just as ready to either reach for the pistol in your belt or head for the quickest way out, to laugh about it in great tales told in the shade of a summer porch sometime later, either way it came out.

But in the last weeks of her life Molly’s writing had lost that touch, replaced by a plainspokenness that was almost plaintive. In the last column of hers I read before I learned she had passed, the next-to-the-last she wrote and published, she tried, not very well, to use once more the finger of ridicule to poke holes in the little puff-toad President that is George W. Bush, and then simply reduced herself to a simple cry of “enough!” in urging us to disengage from the quicksand that is Iraq.

“The president of the United States does not have the sense God gave a duck—so it's up to us,” she wrote. “You and me, Bubba. I don't know why Bush is just standing there like a frozen rabbit, but it's time we found out. The fact is WE have to do something about it. This country is being torn apart by an evil and unnecessary war, and it has to be stopped NOW.”

In part we can assume, now, that this change from the sublime to the imperative was due in great part to the advance stage of the illness that eventually took her life. But, in part, it may have come from a realization that we are rapidly approaching the point when words over the War in Iraq will have lost most of their meaning, and a clash over the future course of this conflict—and the future course of the United States—has become inevitable.

It was William Henry Seward, then United States Senator and later Secretary of State under Lincoln, who in an 1858 speech called the coming Civil War and “irrepressible conflict.”

Describing the competing slave and free-labor systems existing side by side in the United States in that time, Mr. Seward said, “these antagonistic systems are continually coming into closer contact and collision results. Shall I tell you what this collision means? They who think that it is accidental, unnecessary, the work of interested or fanatical agitators, and therefore ephemeral, mistake the case altogether. It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.”

In many ways, the political conflict within the United States in these days has the same feel to it, a political conflict that is no longer driven by individuals, but that has taken on a force of its own, so that individuals on either side may have lost all ability to pull back and halt the impending train wreck.

In a 2003 column talking of the difficulties Democrats and liberal-progressives were having in making any headway in the Bush-era Republicans, Ms. Ivins quoted Texas Senator Gonzalo Barrientos as once saying of his Texas Republican colleagues, "they don't want to govern. They want to rule." In such a conflict, the side which reverts to clever argument, or demands for meet-and-confer, will be quickly overwhelmed by the side that decides that conversation is no longer in currency, only the exercise of raw power.

To too many of our conservative friends, led and inspired by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney but assisted in great part by the Bill O’Reillys, Sean Hannitys, Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters, and Michelle Makins of the world, investigation, persuasion, and proving facts no longer holds value, only the steady movement along a pre-determined course to a pre-determined end. To attempt to reason with folks of such mind becomes increasingly useless since they have taken the stance of the cattle baron Fletcher in the movie “Shane;” they have absolutely no intention to practice “reasonableness,” professing it in pious and seemingly-sincere tones solely as a pretext to get you into town so that their gunfighters can get the draw on you.

They have had considerable practice at this. In these times when someone who can remember what the President said two months ago is considered a “historian,” and reports things farther back are sometimes looked upon like the Lost Scrolls of Atlantis, one forgets that it was Senator McCarthy and the conservative anti-Communist witchhunts that introduced “political correctness” in our lifetimes.

But too many of our friends on the left are rapidly making up ground, on the theory that subtly and thoughtfulness are becoming less and less useful, and only words that cause the equivalent of blunt force trauma will do.

And so we have entered the era of the shout-down, in which political differences are settled by three people on camera trying to outtalk and talk over each other, none of them listening but only looking for the slightest opening in which to jam their pre-programmed soundbytes, to be Youtubed over and over ad infintestimalitim, the commentator looking on in bemused wonderment, one eye always on the ratings bar, the circus barker who has loosed the clowns into the ring, and now must dutifully pretend that he has neither control of nor responsibility for the outcome.

We long—on both the left and the right—for some return to some Grande Americana, the resurrection of the past leadership that fueled this country’s greatness, either in conquest or in democratic tradition, depending upon our own proclivities, but what good would such a resurrection do us if it actually occurred? Theodore Roosevelt, the grandest American imperialist of them all, also gave the simplest prescription for American world power: “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” A Republican Presidential aspirant in these times, espousing such views, would never make it out of the Super Tuesday primaries, where the shaking of sticks is the requirement. And though “Lincolnesque” is often used as the standard for Presidential stature, the actual Lincoln himself would be far too introspective for these days.

In his Second Inaugural Address, sometimes considered his second-best speech next to the one delivered at the services at the Gettysburg battlefield, Lincoln advanced the theory that the American Civil War—then in its fourth bloody year—might have been God’s punishment to America for America’s long embracement of the slave trade and slavery.

“The Almighty has His own purposes,” Mr. Lincoln said in the bleak winter of 1865. "’Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Should Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards suggest that the 3,000 American deaths in Iraq, or the horrific injuries sustained by American troops, or even the September 11th terrorist attacks themselves, might be God’s retribution for some past American act, and that an answer to the problems of the terrorist threat to American might, indeed, be a deep search inside the American purpose and heart, how quick would it take for their Presidential candidacy to sink like a stone?

Introspection is not the fashion, the lifting up of stones to discover and point out what damp and dark secrets are contained therein long ago replaced by a desire merely to throw stones.

Molly Ivins was a person who first made us laugh and, in laughing, then made us think. In her final days, I believe she may have realized that for the time, being, at least, we have become sadly anesthetized to both, and that those types of appeals had temporarily become useless. Now that she—as in Stanton’s famous phrase about Lincoln—Molly Ivins has left us, and belongs to the ages, perhaps her time will roll around again, and we will have a renewed understanding about how she was so important to us.

Until then, we are only left with the last words of Ms. Ivins’ last published column, a call to arms so unlike her usual witty insights: We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we're for them and trying to get them out of there.” And her final shout-out: "Stop it, now!"