Molly, Ralph, and me

29 January, 2007

A lot of feminist blogs are linking to my photo of the annoying bus ad (and others in its campaign, don’t miss this one!), and it’s getting me into an interesting segment of the blogosphere where I haven’t spent much time. In one of these spots, I hear that Molly Ivins is seriously ill. She’s had breast cancer on and off for years, I knew, but this seems pretty damn serious since apparently it’s metastasized enough that she had to stop writing antiwar columns to be hospitalized.

I’d come home from college for winter break, and after the first week of holiday madness I’d find myself at home with nothing really to do. So I’d read through my parents’ bookshelves, and one winter break my stepfather had some new books, compilations of Molly Ivins columns. This being the Clinton years, they dated from the Bush presidency up through the Republican takeover and the 1996 election. They had a big influence on me. They taught me how to follow the money, they taught me how to judge politicians by their records, and they analyzed events I remembered but had been too young to understand. And being teh hilarious didn’t hurt.

Fast forward to 2000. You may remember that there was a presidential election that year. As it got down to the wire, I realized that I would be out of town and would have to vote absentee on election day, which was worrisome because I was planing on picking Nader or Gore depending on how close Illinois looked to be (believe it or not, it was considered a swing state for most of that year). Try and put aside how ridiculous this seems in the context of modern politics and remember along with me how difficult a choice that was for a pragmatic progressive at the time. I could see the arguments on both sides and one day I thought — hey. Why don’t I ask Molly Ivins?

So I wrote a letter. It was long. (You’re shocked, I know.) It praised, if not fawned, and then it begged for guidance. I don’t know what I was expecting, I think in my irrational-est of hearts I was thinking she’d write me back privately and we’d chat and become great pals. Instead, a few days later:

Molly Ivins, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2000 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

My vote for Nader; your vote for . . . ?

AUSTIN — As Gen. George Patton said of war, “God help me, but I love it so.” I realize that the only people in America having a good time right now are political reporters, but we haven’t had this much fun since Grandpa fell in the fish pond. What could be more exciting than David Broder and Tom Oliphant trading thoughts on whether a heavy black voter turnout in north Florida will make all the difference? [creepy, no? -t.]

OK, Nader voters. Let’s talk.

I’m voting for Ralph. I’m voting for Nader because I believe in him, admire him and would like to see his issues and policies triumph in our political life. I’m also voting for him because I live in Texas — where all 32 electoral votes will go to George W. Bush even if I stand on my head, turn blue and vote for Gus Hall, the late communist.

I know that many of my fellow Nader voters are young people and probably don’t want to hear from a geriatric progressive. (We had to walk three miles through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways.) But I have learned some things just from hanging around this long, and with your permission, I will pass them on.

When I was your age, I was, I suspect, far angrier than most of you. Some people I loved died in Vietnam — it was an ugly, bad, nasty time. We’ll not go into it again, but in 1968, I could not bring myself to vote for Hubert Humphrey. So I helped elect Richard Nixon president by writing in Gene McCarthy; and if you ask me, 30 years on, it’s hard to think of a worse turn I could have done my country.

Nixon was a sorry, sick human being, with a gift for exploiting lower-middle-class resentment, envy and bigotry for his own political purposes. This country remains a nastier place today because of Nixon.

None of that has any particular relevance to the election in 2000. Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy, and George W. Bush is no Richard Nixon. [Double creepy! -t.] What’s more relevant here is my 40 years’ experience in Texas electoral politics.

Not to Texas-brag, but we are No. 1 in the art of Lesser Evilism. I have voted for candidates so putrid that it makes your teeth hurt to think about ’em. Why? Because they were better than the other guy.

So here you are, trying to spot that fine hairsbreadth of difference between the sanctimonious Gore and the clueless Bush, ready to damn both of them in favor of a straight shooter like Nader. Here’s the problem: Government matters most to people on the margins. If I may be blunt about this, we live in a society where the effluent flows downhill. And the people on the bottom are drowning in it.

And it is precisely those citizens — whose lives sometimes literally depend on the difference between a politician who really does have a plan to help with the cost of prescription drugs and one who is only pretending that he does — whose lives can be harmed by your idealism.

The size of a tax cut doesn’t matter to people in the richest 1 percent. They’re in Fat City now; they don’t need more money. But the size of a tax cut makes a real difference to Bush’s oft-cited example of the single mom with two kids making $22,000 a year.

When you are barely making it in this society, hanging on by your fingernails, with every unexpected expense a crisis, it matters which is the lesser of two evils.

I know it’s hard for young people to envision age or illness, or the sick feeling of frantic despair when your old wreck of a car finally dies (it always does this in traffic) and will not start again. People who work two and even three jobs to support their kids get so tired — you can’t imagine how tired — and guilt and depression and anxiety all pile on, too. The difference between Gore and Bush matters to those folks.

This is an old argument between radicals and liberals; sometimes I’m on one side, and sometimes I’m on the other. In the primaries, I vote to change the world; in November, I vote for a sliver more for programs that help the needy.

I do not believe that things have to get worse before they can get better. I think you will find that most mothers object to the idea that you would deliberately do something to make a child’s life worse in order to bring about some presumed greater good in the long run. I believe that the best can be the enemy of the better. I believe in taking half a loaf, or even a slice.

And how do we ever change the whole rotten system at that speed? Brick by brick, child by child, slowly, toward liberty and justice for all. The urgent, crucial need right now is to fix the money in politics. It can be done, it will be done, it is being done, and we will get better politics.

In Texas, we’ll vote for Nader and a perfect world. You swing-state progressives need to make the hard choice — but you’re not making it just for yourselves. Good luck to you all.

I’d been lectured at about why it was dumb to vote for Nader by so many people by then, but nobody had said it this well. This was the first argument to actually give me a REASON, a logical and moral framework for making my choice — and not just that choice but many many choices to come.

(I’ve often remembered the bits in this about Vietnam and Nixon in the intervening years. They made me feel defensive at the time, although I could not deny it of course. How many people did I lose in Vietnam, after all? I have not actually read her column in a while, due to my outrage fatigue, but I wonder how she sees it now.)

Get well soon Molly.

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One Response to “Molly, Ralph, and me”

  1. Dr. Birdcage Says:

    It’s great to listen to her read her essays (she’s recorded some of her own books on CDs)– she has a hilarious delivery. While I agree with her that Dubya is no Nixon, sadly, it’s because Dubya makes Tricky Dick look pretty good. At least Nixon didn’t start Vietnam– we have Johnson (and really Kennedy who was looking in that direction, and, really, Truman and Eisenhower who threw money at the French– footing 80% of the French war with the Viet Minh at one point) for that. He continued to pay for a lot of Johnson’s War on Poverty programming (things like Head Start, as I recall), and there’s that whole China thing. Who knew it was possible to make one turn fondly to memories of Nixon? Dubya is just full of surprises.


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