Parting Ways

She laughs often, a big whooping holler that makes you feel stupid for taking this interview and this story and your life so damn seriously. It's what makes her well-known, what makes her special. That in a 10-minute conversation, by sheer force of personality, she can make you forget about her most recent career turn, the mini-controversy that already surrounds it, her life-threatening disease, the state of the free world and the reason you called. Because, in a very honest and friendly way, she makes you feel as though she understands fully the human comedy, and you are just not sharp enough to be in on the joke. It's what makes her Molly.

Right now, the joke--to Molly Ivins, anyway--is George the Younger. "Really, I've just found the Washington press corps has been so weak lately," she says, sounding truly mystified. "Everyone knows the man has no clue, but no one there has the courage to say it. I mean, good gawd, the man is as he always has been: barely adequate."

Ivins will soon have even more chances to weigh in on George W., now that she is no longer a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram--and therefore not under her own self-imposed quota of writing about Texas topics at least once or twice a week. On Sunday, the Star-T announced that Ivins is leaving the paper to write directly for Creators Syndicate, which has long distributed her column. She'll continue to appear on the op-ed pages of the paper, but now she's just another syndicated columnist, no longer the woman most people identified with the Star-T. No longer will the paper have a columnist with national influence.

Ivins says she's looking forward to the lighter workload; she will write two columns for the syndicate instead of three for the newspaper. She will also continue working on her next book project, and she says she will soon begin writing a once-a-month essay for Time magazine.

"I just love it," she says, referring to her new twice-weekly schedule. "I don't know why I didn't do it years ago."

Partly because Ivins became the paper's star the moment she was hired in spring 1992, three months after the Dallas Times Herald was purchased and shut down by The Dallas Morning News. She's been writing in Texas for nearly 20 years, penning two best-selling books (the best known of which is Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?). She is one of the state's most recognizable exports, someone who makes every issue local; for Ivins, the world revolves around Tejas. Take her recent column on the China contretemps, for example.

Texans, of course, have a special stake in good relations with China, since we practically made peace with those folks all by ourselves...During the first reign of Bill Clements as governor, the State Department shipped Premier Deng of China to Texas on the first-ever visit of a big Chinese cheese to this country.

Clements, just the guy anyone would want in a diplomatic pinch, promptly announced to the whole state, "Now, we have to be nice to this little feller, whether we like chop suey or not."

Given her national stature, folks in the Star-T newsroom and friends of Ivins insist there is more to her departure than a simple change of pace. And they're right.

First, though, the denials. Ivins says there is nothing sinister behind her departure. "The Star-Telegram has been wonderful for me, incredible for me, in fact," she says. "I speak no evil, because there's no evil to be spoken."

"It was her decision," says Paul Harral, vice president and editorial director of the Star-Telegram. "I applaud her. She's a legendary talent. She uses words as well as anyone I've ever dealt with. I'll get people who will come up to me and complain that she's too liberal, but they'll say they read her anyway just because she's such a good writer."

All of which sounds peachy-keen, sweet as iced tea. But it begs one li'l ol' nagging question: Why then, part ways?

Newsroom theory No. 1: Ivins is too liberal for extremely conservative Tarrant County--especially Northeast Tarrant, where all the money, growth and focus groups are.

"No, that's not true at all," Harral says. "We get hammered no matter what we do. We publish people all the time who the readership doesn't like. It comes with the territory."

In fact, he says, first thing Monday morning, the paper called Creators and renegotiated the rights to continue running her column. Not that the Morning News could have had exclusive rights to run her column, or would have wanted to, or would even have noticed the announcement in Sunday's Star-T that Ivins was leaving. After all, the Morning News, tempting corporate fellatrix that she is, has been quite distracted lately, what with her mouth so tightly wrapped around Boeing's cockpit.

True, there were some gripes about Ivins that wafted through edit meetings when I worked at the Star-T a few years ago, about sloppy fact-checking, for example. And she has been accused in recent years of professional laziness at best, plagiarism at worst.

But those who worked with her did not join in the most common complaint about Ivins nowadays: that she's become a parody of herself, quick to adopt an aw-shucks persona as soon as a TV camera lights up and points her way. (An image that was highlighted on this past weekend's Saturday Night Live, as an Ivins character spouted southern-fried cornpone sayings during a parody of the political gabfest Hardball.)

But several sources suggest that, although none of the above would itself be grounds for a severed relationship, the idea to part ways was indeed broached by the Star-T, not by Ivins. Which leads to theory No. 2: This was, at least partly, about money.

I have no way of knowing for sure, but even Ivins herself acknowledges that the Star-T can now have the benefits of running her column without paying her a salary. In tight economic times (a.k.a., a "recession"), even the profit-machine that is the Star-T looks for ways to pinch pennies. I don't pretend to know how the negotiations really shook out, but someone is fibbing, and the reasons for the split are more complicated than Ivins or Harral lets on.

(So, to sum up--negotiations: complicated.)

None of which should suggest that Ivins isn't honest when she says she's looking forward to the change. Just that it may have been one she was asked to make. And Harral is right: The paper won't suffer in the eyes of the readers; they don't care to whom she turns in her column, only that it winds up in the paper.

And it is hard to make much out of this, because Ivins sounds generally excited about the chance to have more time to herself, even if that means just a few extra hours a week. She's done with her chemotherapy treatment for her breast cancer and says her doctors give her a 70 percent chance of being cancer-free for the next five years. Things like that make determining who said what and when seem less than important.

"But I don't want to make it sound as though cancer has done a damn thing for me, because it hasn't," Ivins says, laughing again. "But getting better has been a curious process for me. And some decisions have simply become quite clear. This is the right thing to do. That's clear."

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