Good Golly, Molly's Got Opinions

Texas political writer Molly Ivins sees humor in presidential race

APPROPRIATELY, the stuffed armadillo above Molly Ivins's computer screen points to the left. These armored, burrowing, toothless mammals have been the unofficial mascot of a generation of liberal-progressive Texans like Ms. Ivins.

Through newspaper columns and freelance articles - lately collected in the best-selling "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" (Vintage) - Ivins has sardonically illuminated the dim-bulb doings of the state's legislature and business elite.

Her post at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram's offices across from the capitol lets Ivins keep an eye glued to the keyhole, eager that the public not miss a single episode of self-serving chicanery. As the framed ad over her desk proclaims, these are times that try women's souls, even though her soul mate "Annie" Richards, who smiles in an autographed photo, currently calls the governor's mansion home.

One item of office clutter, a MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour mug, hints at Ivins's newfound role as televised tattler to the nation about Texas. And the timing couldn't be better, what with a Dallas billionaire and a Yankee immigrant oilman scuffling over the presidency, not to mention an Ivy League country cousin from next-door Arkansas. Let pundits make sense of it all; Ivins celebrates the silliness of the spectacle.

"Idn it wunerful?" she says in her best good-ol' boy dialect. "What a great nation we live in," Ivins adds with a bellowing laugh.

"I realize that most of my fellow Americans are near despair over the entire democratic system at this point, but for those of us who are politically humorous, it's just been a heavenly year."

Every campaign has key moments that are like snapshots in a photo album, she says. And the album for Campaign '92 "is just full of priceless things."

"I think [Gov. Bill] Clinton's finest moment was his saying he never inhaled. I liked that a lot."

There was family values night at the Republican Convention. Barbara Bush made a "wonderful" speech, the Bush children and grandchildren were on display, balloons drifted downward - all to the theme song from "La Cage Aux Folles," a film about homosexual marriage.

"Then of course there's this wonderful episode where the vice president of the United States got into a serious debate with a fictional character," Ivins says. "The high point of that was the photograph of Dan Quayle sitting there with a bunch of single black welfare mothers watching Murphy Brown on television."

"Then you have the day the president got into a fight with a chicken," she says, recalling George Bush's verbal exchange with a man in a chicken suit who made fun of him for not agreeing to debate Governor Clinton.

"I really don't know what more a girl could ask for. This is just bliss," Ivins laughs.

For the moment, Ivins is relishing the hornets nest Ross Perot stirred up by his latest explanation for why he quit the race in July. "I observed of Perot when I first started writing about him: Here's a guy who's slightly paranoid. It's like slightly pregnant. It just always gets worse."

"I tend to be pathologically optimistic, but it may be yet another symptom of our political decline that a man who's never been elected to anything by anybody was at one point leading in the polls for the presidency based on six appearances on television," she adds.

"If that doesn't strike you as weird, it probably should.... This is a man who's bought his way into the election. If Perot were, instead of being a multibillionaire, just your standard right-wing millionaire car dealer from Kansas City, we'd all think he was the greatest joke in the world," Ivins says.

She is against making an issue of "character," which she says has become a code word for sexual morality. "The idea that the political press corps is somehow fit to pronounce on somebody else's character is just hilarious. Let's face it: not our forte, is it?" Ivins laughs uproariously.

Ivins says she is genuinely fond of Bush, having covered him since the 1960s. He has an "endearingly goofy streak," which she likens to "verbal dyslexia. You just never know what's going to come out of his mouth," like his remark about 90-90 hindsight in the third debate.

Ivins also compliments Bush's "lovely manners." She says, "His mother should be congratulated." And Bush is loyal to a fault, she says, "but it's an attractive loyalty."

Although Ivins refuses with mock horror to say for whom she will vote, her preference is as clear as as the sky over the Ouachita Mountains.

"Bill Clinton is very, very bright and has really good political instincts. I am enough of a political buff as well as a political reporter to appreciate people with political skill.

"We have been governed for 12 years by people who don't believe in government. I believe it's a good idea to have smart people who believe in government running it."

"I'm not one who sits around and thinks that Bill Clinton is the answer to everybody's prayers," Ivins adds, but cautiously commends his record in Arkansas. "It's not terrific.... But he did take a poor state and jack it up. He didn't jack it up very far, but there was a reason why they kept reelecting him."

Politicians, she notes, tend to have big egos and to want to be liked by everyone. "I think Clinton's going to have a problem. Does he have enough guts to make enemies?"

The last master politician to be elected president, Ivins says, was Texas' own Lyndon Johnson. "If you set aside the war in Vietnam - which I grant you is a whole lot like saying if had not been for the Hundred Years War it would have been a swell century - Lyndon Johnson undoubtedly would have gone down as one of the greatest presidents in the history of this country. And Lyndon Johnson could not have passed any character test devised by the human imagination."

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