When Humor Made a Point
Or Saturday night TV and the legacies of Ann Richards and Molly Ivins
One night several years before my father died, we were tweaking each other about politics, something that happened on a semi-regular basis. Somewhat joking, he asked how I turned out the way I did.
My response: Saturday night television.
Between All in the Family, Maude, M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Times, and The Carol Burnett Show — all of which aired Saturdays on CBS at one point or another in the early to mid 1970s — my fate was sealed. The shows, while making audiences laugh, also made you think about culture, class, race, war, and women’s rights.
Exposure to these shows — and I have my dad to thank for that — was not terribly common in 1970s Texas, the state that has given me political pause on more than one occasion. Growing up, I did not understand how the state’s conservative nature equated with its voting record; Texas had a Democratic governor for more than 100 years from the end of Reconstruction until 1979, when Bill Clements was elected to the first of two non-consecutive terms.
But then, being a Democrat in Texas never meant you were liberal.
Learning on the Job
My first journalism job, which came just nine days after I graduated from high school, was working for the summer with the Texas City Sun, my hometown newspaper. At the time, the Sun was owned by Jefferson-Pilot Corp., the life insurance company that at the time had invested in newspapers, radio, and television stations.
The managing editor at the time, Leo Lambert, was a veteran newspaperman who had come under fire for labeling two local community college professors as “socialists,” something they didn’t bother to deny. The feud got many riled up but didn’t do much for the paper’s reputation. More than once, locals told me they had bought birds just so they could line their cages with Leo’s editorials.
In the fall of 1983, I went off to the University of Houston and joined the student newspaper staff, ending my first day as a freshman with an article on The Daily Cougar’s front page. Classes quickly became secondary to reporting and writing on student government, and it became evident that college was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
High school had been easy, academically if not socially. I didn’t open a book — at least none related to the subject I was supposed to be studying — and still finished in the top 10 percent of my class of 353. Journalism, speech, and drama were my areas of interest — not exactly subjects that put you with the cool crowd, no matter how many football statistics you knew on the side.
In the summer of 1984, I returned to work at the Sun and enrolled at College of the Mainland, where I took political science classes from one of the so-called socialists and realized quickly that he wasn’t as crazy as Leo made him appear.
By summer’s end, Leo and the publisher were out as Jefferson Pilot sold its newspaper interests. The Sun was purchased by Southern Newspapers Inc., a community newspaper chain that also owned our chief competitor — the Galveston Daily News — and installed new much younger leadership. Even though I was still only 19 and very much “the kid,” I felt like I was working with a group of peers.
Looking back, it was one of the favorite periods of my 30-year office career.
Watching Ann Richards
What I appreciated about the Sun was the relative freedom my boss (John Simsen) gave me to pursue different types of stories. I was working for peanuts — everyone who worked for small-town newspapers did — so if I wanted to chase fun stories on what was essentially my own dime and gas money, he told me to go for it.
I interviewed musicians (Charles Brown and B.B. King), authors (Bette Midler, Chuck Jones), met Muhammad Ali and Nolan Ryan, reported on the Challenger Memorial service, and later followed George H.W. Bush and Rajiv Gandhi around NASA.
One night in 1989, I covered a fundraiser for Ann Richards, the Democratic candidate for governor and a Texas legend, in large part because of her ribald, sarcastic sense of humor. The year before, Richards had sealed that legendary status with the one-liners in her speech at the Democratic National Convention.
At the Galveston fundraiser, she continued her populist themes, which continue to resonate in today’s polarized times. I recently went back and found her quotes from that evening.
“Repeatedly I see people who get into public office and seem to thrive on feeding their own ego or their own pocketbook,” said Richards, who succeeded Clements as governor in 1990 and served until 1994. “Very few of them have the attitude that the purpose of government is to bring the players together to solve the people’s problems.
“When you lose sight of the people and you lose sight of the individual who is going to be affected by what you do in government, then you’ve lost the purpose of government.”
The Legacy of Molly Ivins
Like Molly Ivins and Linda Ellerbee, both Texas natives and journalists/authors that I briefly met during this period, I appreciated Richards’ ability to make you think and laugh at the same time. Although their politics were different from my family’s, all three women shared two things in common with my mom and grandmother: brass balls and wits to match.
I’ve thought a lot about my native state recently since the Uvalde school shooting and subsequent bruhaha over this country’s gun violence. The other night I was channel surfing — or app surfing, to describe it more accurately — and found the 2019 documentary, “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” on Hulu.
The 93-minute film is an affectionate tribute to the late columnist — Ivins died in 2007 following a long battle with cancer the year after Richards. For years, as one of a handful of liberal women in Texas, Ivins castigated politicians with much the same fervor that Richards did.
“Ann and Molly created a sense of intimacy with their humor—they brought you in on the joke,” Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz wrote. “No one particularly cared that the jokes were cover for a roiling anger—both women understood intuitively that their humor could be used to draw listeners in and (maybe) change a few minds.”
Much like the recent HBO documentary on George Carlin, a comic who died 14 years ago, “Raise Hell” reminds us that Ivins is in some ways as relevant today as when she was alive. Just read on:
“When politicians start talking about large groups of their fellow Americans as 'enemies,' it's time for a quiet stir of alertness. Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and also a good way to wreck a country.”
“What stuns me most about contemporary politics is not even that the system has been so badly corrupted by money. It is that so few people get the connection between their lives and what the bozos do in Washington and our state capitols.”
“Whenever you hear a politician carry on about what a mess the schools are, be aware that you are looking at the culprit.”
“How the American right managed to convince itself that the programs to alleviate poverty are responsible for the consequences of poverty will someday be studied as a notorious mass illusion.”
“Many a time freedom has been rolled back, and always for the same sorry reason — fear.”
You can find more wisdom by reading Ivins’ books or by catching reruns of those classic 1970s shows that I once watched on those Saturday nights. More than likely, they won’t change how you feel or what you think, but maybe they’ll make you ponder the state of the current world and laugh a little, too.