Sunday, November 13, 2005

Molly Ivins

I picked up a Molly Ivins column Saturday. It's not something I usually do. Every time I read one, it seems she's ranting about how she's known George W. Bush since high school and what a jerk he always was, ever since he was 16.

I think it must be a set-piece with her. That is, I think she's told that story so often and knows she's done so, so she tries to vary the telling every time just to make the stale old thing seem a bit fresh. How else to explain her awkward chattiness and forced yokelisms?

Maybe she always writes that way, though. But there's something creepy about a grown woman still obsessing over a hatred she stoked in high school.

This time her topic was the revelations of secret CIA interrogation camps in Eastern Europe. The revelations disturb me. Not that I thought our CIA agents were a bunch of choirboys. If war is hell, spook-work in wartime is bound to get downright satanic. But I'm angry and sad to learn the scale and scope of these camps, and that they occupy the footprints of the old Soviet system, and that they present such an ugly face to the still idealistic new democracies of the old Warsaw Pact. I'm angry at the way they seem to dovetail with Cheney's campaign to hold the CIA aloof from domestic torture regulations, and at the way the administration seems genuinely to believe torture is an efficient way to pry loose essential true information.

So I wanted to see what it felt like to read Molly Ivins when I agreed with her. Would I see her as the blinding light of truth, as many of my co-workers do?

She began by writing about torture and American "gulags." "Gulags" in this case is an exaggeration for effect that put me off at once. The revelations are serious enough; the drift of America toward Soviet ways is disturbing enough. But Molly leaps to a full-blown identification (as did those who call Gitmo a "concentration camp") which confuses the discussion and invites a change of subject from those who want to change it and will latch on to her hyperbole. But I suspect her regular readers love it.

Yet, sure enough, having worked up this head of steam she used it to plow right off the track and back into time to revisit her obsession with high school.

She blasts George W. Bush's phony qualifications as a tough leader of men by pointing out that in high school he was a cheerleader, not a football player.

I have known George W. Bush since we were both in high school -- we have dozens of mutual friends. I have written two books about him and so have interviewed many dozens more who know him well in one way or another. Spare me the tough talk. He didn't play football -- he was a cheerleader. "He is really competitive," said one friend. "You wouldn't believe how tough he is on a tennis court!" Just cut the macho crap -- I don't want to hear it.

Good golly. Molly's sticking up for the heroic clique of football players and protecting them from the sadistic wanna-be swagger of a mere male cheerleader. When did she become such a devotee of true testosterone? Does anyone doubt for a minute that if George W. Bush had in fact been a star quarterback who led his squad to the state title, today we'd be reading Molly's scathing critique of the twisted machismo viciousness of Texas high school football, and the hyperviolent propensities it pounds into the stunted brains of its players?

By now, in that parallel universe, Molly would have found some decent fellow who was a male cheerleader for Bush's team who happened to be gay and who just wanted to share his life and his benefits with his loyal partner of 20 years, but that of course can never happen in George W. Bush's America.

And our unfortunate equivalent selves in that parallel universe are right now reading Molly's faux-folksy explanation about how male cheerleaders are the real heroes of Texas high school football -- they work their buns off the whole game (no catching your breath on the bench), and their good hearts devote their skills to uplifting the entire crowd, down to the most humble, eschewing the violent ego-work of the gridiron for the communal effort of the sidelines. The ex-cheerleader's sad tale would help Molly through half a week of her contractual obligation to the newspaper syndicate.

At least she could write that column without being a hypocrite. Maybe that's why George W. Bush pisses off people like Molly so intensely. He's too much like them, in his patchy past, for them to keep enough distance from him to get good firing range.

The thing is, I'd likely agree with her about the gay cheerleader, too. Let him get married. Though I'd dissent from her mania for blaming everything on the president. But at least her bile might have some bite if it had sincerity in it.

But back in this universe, Molly sleepwalks through her necessary pose as champion of causes and institutions she doesn't really respect. Football players against cheerleaders. She has to take that role if she want another 23 inches to rail against her old high school nemesis.

Just so, in the bits where she's staggered out of her obsession and actually returned to her topic, Molly's sense of violated dignity rings hollow. The CIA prisons are a blot on America's reputation and an insult to America's virtues. We win by being both stronger and better than our enemies. That's what I feel.

But when Molly chimes in on the same theme, I see no evidence that she ever thought America had any particular virtues worth noticing, or that the Declaration of Independence was anything but a lot of high-falutin' horse hockey words meant to justify every sort of perfidy, from Indian genocide to black slavery to wars of aggression. Whence this sudden concern for America's wounded reputation from someone who's built a successful career of publicly plunging America in the mud twice a week?

But maybe the Molly I've read over the years isn't representative of her. Maybe I missed something, like where she laid out what it is about America and Americans that she really loves and cherishes and would fight to protect. Fortunately, this column I read gives her the opening to recapitulate. It's the softball pitch down the middle of the plate that she'll have to conect with to make her indignation really stick.

But when Molly makes her recitation of the greatness of America -- which the CIA revelations have besmirched -- she only manages a feeble formula of half-sentences, as though she had to bite her tongue to even mumble the phrases out her mouth.

Who are we? What have we become? The shining city on a hill, the beacon and bastion of refuge and freedom, a country born amidst the most magnificent ideals of freedom and justice, the greatest political heritage ever given to any people anywhere.

And look at it: it's not Molly Ivins writing; it's Reagan's language, the Biblical image via the evangelical preacher and the conservative Republican president. A set of tropes cribbed from his speeches. What do you think Molly was saying and writing about Reagan's vision of America circa 1983? Do we really have to go do a LexisNexis search of her old columns to agree that she forcefully dissented from that, too? Here's a hint: She once wrote that Reagan's charm was "not just that he kept telling us screwy things, it was that he believed them all."

So on what level could this possibly work? No, of course Molly doesn't really believe football is a noble sport or that Reagan's morning-light image of America was a true picture or even a worthy ideal. She's simply picking those up as the most hurtful weapons to hurl at that evil, evil man in the White House (Molly, to her credit, rarely falls into the trap of calling him "stupid"). You bad president! You're a disgrace to football. You betrayed Reagan.

That makes more sense. But why should anyone pay attention to her when she's simply saying things because she thinks they'll hurt, not because they'll help, or even because she means them. Osama can, and does, write about America in that spirit, and frankly he does so more eloquently and incisively than Molly. Probably because he doesn't bother to warp his style to pretend he's your beauty parlor confidante.

I'm with Rabindranath Tagore on this one: "He alone may chastise who loves."
"I have loved America all my life, even though I have often disagreed with the government," Molly insists. I frankly don't believe it. Even when it serves her interests to actually back that up with a description of what it is she loves about America, and why it's worthy of her love, the best she can do is a clipped set of Reagan-era sound bytes everyone knows she doesn't really believe. It's as if she wants to stand on the "love America" side of the line for the sake of her argument, but wants to do it in a way that tips off all her friends that, no, she couldn't possibly be serious about that. Not the way those flag-people mean it.

If by "love" she means "continually dissent from and complain about and mock and belittle," well, then she might be telling the truth. But I love my son, and I don't consider that a good way to show it.

A great many Americans -- a majority, to read the polls, have grown disaffected from the Iraq War. Revelations of torture and U.S. misbehavior certainly have been part of that process. People who believe America should and does stand for something worth fighting for take revelations like Abu Ghraib and the CIA camps hard, even if we don't react by publicly tearing up the national leadership in the presence of the enemy. They shake our foundations, because we believe national virtues are real and they matter.

John McCain execrates U.S. torture and scolds White House policies, too. I listen when he does so, and I'm moved by his words. Even if he and Molly say the same thing, he can convince me where she cannot. The difference is he makes his criticisms out of evident patriotism. It isn't just that he knows torture personally in a way she never will (no, being picked on by male cheerleaders in high school is not torture). It's that he actually loves the country that these accusations defame, and he believes in the national virtues he lends his eloquence to defend. He knows he lives in a shining city on the hill.

But when I read Molly on that topic, even if she did it well, I'd still be thinking, "Had there been no Iraq invasion, had there been no Afghanistan, had there been no 9/11, she'd still be writing columns that end in 'shame, shame, shame.' She'd simply find some other damned donkey to pin the raggedy tail of her dudgeon to."