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Molly Ivins; with rapier wit, she skewered powerful; at 62

Molly Ivins began writing her column in 1982. Molly Ivins began writing her column in 1982. (Matthew Lee/globe staff file/2001)

LOS ANGELES -- Molly Ivins, the irrepressibly irreverent political humorist and syndicated columnist who skewered legislators, governors, and presidents, especially those from her beloved Texas, died yesterday at her home in Austin after a long battle with cancer. She was 62.

Ms. Ivins was diagnosed in 1999 with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. After fighting two recurrences, she became ill again last year as the disease spread. Her death was announced by the Texas Observer, where she began her career as a political pundit 30 years ago.

In her last weeks, she devoted her waning energy to what she called "an old-fashioned newspaper campaign" against President Bush's plan to escalate the Iraq war. "We are the people who run this country," she wrote in her last column two weeks ago. "We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war."

At a recent tribute dinner that raised $400,000 for the Observer, Ms. Ivins drew a standing ovation when Lewis Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, said: "She reminds us that dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors."

Ms. Ivins established herself as a font of liberal outrage and hilarity during the 1970s, when she was an editor and writer at the Observer. She went on to write for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic, Esquire, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

She also was the best-selling author of several books, including "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" (1991) and two sassily titled volumes on President Bush, co-written with Lou Dubose: "Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" (2000) and "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America" (2003).

Some of her pieces were deeply reflective or affectionate, such as her essays about Ann Richards, the sharp-witted former Texas governor who died in 2006; Barbara Jordan, the late congresswoman remembered for her eloquence during the Nixon impeachment debates; and an anonymous visitor to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

She was best known, however, for her mastery of what one critic called the "well-informed potshot," which she generally reserved for conservative figures such as Bush (aside from "Shrub" and "Dubya" she called him "President Billy Bob Forehead"), Arnold Schwarzenegger ("a condom filled with walnuts"), and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh (whose bite was "akin to being gummed by a newt. . . . it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle").

Democrats did not escape her arrows. Writing at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Ms. Ivins described President Clinton as "weaker than bus-station chili."

Her favorite target, however, was the Texas Legislature, which she referred to as "the Lege." Describing knock-down-drag-out brawls, flagrant bias, and absurd laws, she wrote of its shortcomings with gusto and horror, declaring it "the finest free entertainment in Texas. Better than the zoo. Better than the circus."

She described herself as "a left-wing, aging-Bohemian journalist, who never made a shrewd career move, never dressed for success, never got married, and isn't even a lesbian, which at least would be interesting."

Ms. Ivins was almost a native Texan: Born in Monterey, Calif., she moved to Houston before she was 1. Her father, James, was a corporate lawyer and conservative Republican. Her mother, Margaret, was a Smith College psychology graduate and self-described liberal Republican. She was, according to Ms. Ivins, "as shrewd as she was ditzy . . . a combination of Sigmund Freud and Gracie Allen."

She had two siblings, Andy and Sara, who survive her.

She followed her mother's footsteps to Northampton, Mass., and Smith, where she earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1965. She obtained a master's in journalism from Columbia University, then studied for a year in Paris at the Institute for Political Science.

By then, her liberal instincts were well developed, tinted with an understanding of the realities of Southern life. "I believe all Southern liberals come from the same starting point -- race," she once wrote. "Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.

"If you grew up white before the civil rights movement anywhere in the South, all grown-ups lied. They'd tell you stuff like, 'Don't drink out of the colored fountain, dear, it's dirty.' In the white part of town, the white fountain was always covered with chewing gum and the marks of grubby kids' paws, and the colored fountain was always clean. Children can be horribly logical."

During summer breaks from Columbia, she worked at the Houston Chronicle as "sewer editor," her self-mocking description of a rookie reporter's job. Once done with school, she decided that the best course was to leave the South for the ostensibly more high-minded North. She went to work for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1968 and covered social movements and the police beat. She would later write in an official biography that one of her greatest honors was having the Minneapolis police force name its mascot pig after her.

After three years, she returned to Texas to become co-editor of the Observer, a liberal journal "so poor that the business manager slept under the Addressograph and the reporters stole pencils from the governor's office."

She chronicled the mistakes and misdeeds of Texas lawmakers for five years until she was hired away by The New York Times in 1976. She covered New York politics, then became the paper's Rocky Mountain bureau chief, but the match of Ms. Ivins and the Grey Lady of journalism was misbegotten from the get-go. The paper flattened and defoliated her colorful prose. For example, it turned "a beer gut that belongs in the Smithsonian" into "a protuberant abdomen."

The line that ended her New York Times career came in a story about a community chicken-killing festival. Ms. Ivins called the event a "gang pluck," a choice of words that caused her to be "sort of abruptly recalled like a defective automobile and replaced," she told in 2000.

Her next stop was the Dallas Times Herald, which promised her a column and stylistic freedom. It stood by her for 10 years, even when one of her pieces caused an advertiser boycott and canceled subscriptions.

In 1995, writer Florence King said Ms. Ivins plagiarized her in one of the essays in "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" Ms. Ivins acknowledged that she had goofed in omitting the attribution for some lines and apologized.

When the Dallas Times Herald closed in 1992, she found herself in the odd predicament of being "broke, unemployed, and on The New York Times best-seller list." She eventually landed at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a columnist. She remained there until spring 2001, when she began to write directly for Creators Syndicate, which distributed her twice-weekly column to 400 papers.

In 2001, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with King Juan Carlos of Spain, fashion photographer Richard Avedon, and former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. She described her reaction in typical Ivins twang: It had left her "whomperjawed."