By Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith PublicAffairs; $15.95 paperback; 336 pages
It's a tough act to write about one of the best journalists in American history. Molly Ivins was once syndicated in some 400 newspapers, and died at the top of her game on Jan. 31, 2007, of cancer. Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith do solid research in their book, Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, but it falls short of being a definitive biography of her life.
While there is great detail about Ivins' early life growing up in Houston and becoming a journalist on her own terms, this book suffers from too much minutia. They provide information culled from Ivins' own pack-rat collection of materials, and numerous quotes from family and friends, but they do not include a lot of Ivins' own words. And some of the details they do include are just not interesting and have no real context. In places it seems like a list of speeches she gave, but nothing about the actual speeches, the response, impact or analysis.
A lot of the book is also repetitive: Just how many times do we need to hear how unusual her looks were, how tall she was, how much she drank and smoked, etc.? The fact that the authors are both male likely influenced their approach to this topic, for it falls far short of the strong feminist analysis that Ivins' life warrants. Sure, we learn about all the men she loved and hated, the influence they had on her life and how she was likely a frustrated heterosexual, not a closeted lesbian. But all of the small details do not really seem to add up to the whole woman: journalist, columnist, humorist and more.
The authors do include some of Ivins' more famous quotes and stories, such as her saying Pat Buchanan's 1992 Republican Convention speech about the culture war "probably sounded better in the original German." We hear about her activism that crossed over traditional journalism lines, about her ability to cozy up to even the most conservative politicians, and her longtime friendships.
I wanted to like this book, because I love the work of Ivins. She was unparalleled in her political commentary over the course of several decades. She redefined what it is to be a journalist. She became well known in the 1990s and 2000s, especially as a Texas native writing about George W. "Shrub" Bush in his pre-presidential and then presidential years. But the book is like an iceberg, providing just the tip of Ivins. If you want to really know her better, read her own books. And hopefully we will get more interpretations of her life from a wide range of biographers in the future.
This book is a good start, and I do recommend it for fans of Ivins' work, but it is not enough to follow in the footsteps of this Texas legend.