The value of character
By Margaret Engel
“These are some bad, ugly and angry times, and I am so freaked out. Politics isn’t about left and right; it’s about up and down. The few are screwing the many.”
Prescient and plain-speaking as ever, the hell-raising columnist Molly Ivins wrote this shortly before her voice was stilled way too soon in January, 2007.
The day after her death, with heartfelt tributes flowing in from national commentators such as Paul Krugman and Garrison Keillor, my twin sister and I decided to write a one-woman play about Molly Ivins, the better to keep her distinctive voice alive.
We weren’t alone in wanting to keep hearing from Molly. We lost track of how many political writers lamented that Molly wasn’t around to comment on the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin or the Teabaggers. “What would Molly say?” they asked in print. The Texas Observer, Molly’s longtime employer and keeper of her journalistic flame, even had green bracelets printed up with that slogan on them.
From her perch in Austin, Texas, Molly saw clearly what was happening in this country – more clearly than many journalists roaming the corridors of power in Washington. She provided an early warning on so many issues – the Savings & Loan crisis, the bogus rationale for the Iraq war, the increasing polarization of politics, the crony capitalism that was erasing our middle class. She was an early admirer of Barack Obama – as she said, “the only candidate with any Elvis in him” – but would not have hesitated to take him on, as she did with any politician who became too cozy with lobbyists or big business and forgot that “we, the people” were the ones who should be running the show.
Studying Molly and writing about her life turned out to be a chance to examine my own values – journalistic and otherwise. She was a nonstop fighter who came to populism and progressivism after an early life of privilege in a Republican household. She ran in the same high school circles in Houston as George W. Bush, who belonged to the same country club. But while “Shrub,” as she nicknamed him, relived his parents’ lives, Molly made a clean break from her own parents’ political and social beliefs and never looked back.
The courage it took for her to publicly disagree with her parents was inspiring. So too was her lifelong commitment to patriotic principles. When the great Texas storyteller and patriot John Henry Faulk, was dying, Molly made a promise to her mentor to continue his “speechifying” to freedom fighting groups. So, once a month for the last 15 years of her life, Molly – at her own expense – traveled to small towns across America where the Constitution or Bill of Rights was under attack, giving speeches about the importance of standing up for our rights. Her only stipulation was that she not travel to liberal cities such as San Francisco or New York where people tended to agree with her.
This very substantial commitment of time and money in the service of the principles laid down by our founders was something Molly did quietly. It was but one example of her very fierce patriotism. Another was her annual Fourth of July column in which she wrote about American ideals in words that could be understood by all. A collection of her columns was printed by Readers Digest which pleased Molly no end. She wanted as many citizens as possible to realize that patriotism and liberalism are not incompatible bedfellows.
Molly was a columnist who was not bound by journalistic strictures to be politically neutral. Her unabashed opinions did not make her less effective. It did give me pause to consider how much more effective she was than reporters who claim to be objective but who trade in their skepticism and tough questions for access to powerful inner circles.
Another Molly hallmark was humor, which is often suspect in journalism. Molly used jokes as a means to an end. When people laughed, she said, they opened up their ears and heard you. Molly joined other political truth-tellers such as Mark Twain, Michael Moore and Al Franken in speaking humor to power. That gave me pause as well. Maybe humor can help bridge the awful divide in our political discourse these days.
Margaret Engel’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.