Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

Red Hot Patriot

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

By Margaret Engel and Allison Engel
Directed by David Esbjornson
Featuring Kathleen Turner
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 21, 2014–January 11, 2015

Running time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, no intermission

Two-time Tony and Oscar nominee Kathleen Turner makes her Berkeley Rep debut as Molly Ivins, the brassy, sharp-witted political journalist and best-selling author of Bushwacked. Celebrated for her folksy yet barbed humor, Ivins was the rowdy raconteur stirring up trouble in the old boy’s club and ridiculing those she deemed too big for their britches—earning her a widely read syndicated column and a seat next to Mark Twain as one of America’s beloved satirists. In Red Hot Patriot, Kathleen Turner is all smarts and sass as the redheaded firebrand, recounting her political rants and personal reflections with a liberal dose of piss and vinegar.

Creative team

Allison Engel · Playwright
Margaret Engel · Playwright
David Esbjornson · Director
John Arnone · Scenic Design
Elizabeth Hope Clancy · Costume Design
Daniel Ionazzi · Lighting Design
Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen · Sound Design & Original Music
Maya Ciarrocchi · Projection Design
Paul Huntley · Wig Design
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager


Kathleen Turner · Molly Ivins
Michael Barrett Austin · Helper

“A love-fest! The speaker is Kathleen Turner, using her considerable stage presence to convey the heft and sting of Ivins’ writings in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Most of the words are by Ivins, and they had the audience roaring with laughter at Tuesday’s opening…Turner—a solid presence in blue denim work shirt, jeans and flaming red hair—delivers her lines with a half-gracious, half-defiant Texas twang and timing that makes the wit land with comic precision.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“A moving memorial to a one-of-a-kind American who was unafraid to be a frickin’ pain in the ass to people in power…Turner’s Ivins essentially takes us through her life as a reporter, columnist and author, all the while sticking it to the establishment and trying (in vain) to alert the world that people with the last name Bush should not be allowed to run the country. There are, of course, many hearty laughs…delightful!”—Theater Dogs

“Turner exudes charm and self-assurance as Ivins, the staccato rhythm of her breathy diction landing deftly on the punch lines…What really comes across is the aforementioned ‘kick-ass wit’ of Ivins in one pithy zinger after another. Anyone who could say of a congressman, ‘if his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day,’ is going to be a hoot to listen to for an hour or so.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Molly Ivins loved to kick ass. A political reporter and muckraker from the great state of Texas who used humor as her primary analytical tool, she once said about Vice President Dan Quayle: “If you put that man’s brain in a bumblebee it would fly backwards.”

She became a legendary writer, a columnist who, at the time of her death in 2007, was syndicated in over 400 newspapers around the country. But her popularity was hard won. The recipient of numerous literary prizes and many awards, she was constantly at odds with her editors for creating an intense amount of controversy. Her prose wasn’t simply smart or precise, it was combustible. She wasn’t just clever or witty, she was dangerously funny.

The bottom line was that Molly Ivins couldn’t bear politicians who were stupid or lazy or corrupt. And she was unafraid of going after them. But her aims were much higher than exposing the hypocrisy of nefarious individuals. She was, first and foremost, a citizen whose candor and dissent were at the heart of that messy, chaotic, and raucous process we call American democracy. She insisted that political decisions have a profound effect on the life of every American, and that if we ignore the football being kicked around in our city council, our state capitol, and among our leaders in Washington…well then, we get what we deserve. She called on us to fulfill our duty as citizens: to raise hell when hell needs raising. And if we’re worried about the consequences of behaving “badly,” Ivins counseled, well not to worry, since there’s nothing more flat-out fun than raising hell.

So what better actress to raise hell with than Kathleen Turner? Bearing a striking resemblance to the physically formidable Ivins (who at six feet tall once said that she was recruited for the basketball team at age 4), Ms. Turner is likewise armed with a wicked intelligence and a passion for political combat. She embraces Molly with a muscular gusto that provides great entertainment and boisterous humor while inserting herself into a serious conversation about the state of our country. It is a great pleasure to welcome her to Berkeley, along with longtime friend and colleague, director David Esbjornson. Together they bring the sassy truth of Molly Ivins to our stage, with a swagger that, with any luck, can raise some holy hell.


Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

It’s really no accident that Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins received its world premiere starring Kathleen Turner in 2010, and that she reprised her role 2012. Both were election years, and of course, in 2012 President Obama was seeking a second term in a heated race against Governor Mitt Romney. Ms. Turner will be the first to say that she planned it that way—and I can’t help but to think that Ms. Ivins was cheering her on with a “Give ‘em hell, Kathleen.”

With her rigorous research and infamous wit, Molly Ivins made us pay attention to the world around us, to our politicians, and even to our own actions (or inactions). Likewise, Berkeley Rep has always endeavored to engage you, our audience, in an ongoing dialogue of ideas through provocative and entertaining productions. Our most recent, Party People, was more than a look at a seminal moment in history, it also raised questions about legacy and revolution today. Last season’s Tribes offered a profound glimpse into the inner life of a young deaf man born to a hearing family. The House that will not Stand, a play that we commissioned and premiered earlier this year (and which recently played in London), unearthed a fascinating bit of history about 19th-century New Orleans. Many of you have responded to these plays and more. We’re so gratified to read your thoughts via email, through our post-show surveys, and on social media. We love hearing from you.

Now Molly Ivins takes the stage once again through the immense talent of Kathleen Turner. Though the 2014 midterm elections have come to a close, we hope Red Hot Patriot inspires you to continue to ask questions, to learn, and to engage with current events, political issues, and your community.


Susan Medak

Satire without cynicism: The life and work of Molly Ivins

By Lexi Diamond

“Sharp.” “Biting.” “Skewering.” Words like these inevitably appear in any discussion of the fiercely clever Molly Ivins and her ferocious approach to journalism. But to get a true sense of Ivins, one must consider her acerbic gibes and her unforgiving scrutiny in the context of her passion for the outrageous, for the truth, and for her readers and country. As she once wrote, “Being a cynic is contemptibly easy. If you let yourself think that nothing you’re working on is ever going to make a difference, why bust your tail over it? Why care? If you’re a cynic, you don’t have to invest anything in your work. No effort, no pride, no compassion, no sense of excellence, nothing.” Molly Ivins devoted herself entirely to dissecting the political landscape she surveyed, making a corrupt and often alienating world accessible and even hilarious.

Born in 1944 and raised in Houston, Texas, Ivins made her foray into journalism with a summer job working for the Houston Chronicle complaints department between her years as a student at Smith College. After studying at the Institute of Political Science in Paris and earning her master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she returned to the Chronicle as a columnist, and moved on shortly after that to the Minneapolis Tribune.

Ivins was the first woman police reporter at the Tribune, and when she accepted the position of co-editor of the Texas Observer in 1970, she became one of just a handful of women with a high-ranking job in the world of journalism. Despite the progress made by the women’s movement in the 1970s, newsrooms remained heavily male-dominated atmospheres. Women who did write for newspapers rarely wrote about politics, and certainly not with the kind of piss and vinegar present in every one of Ivins’ columns. She complained that most often when newspapers hired women, it was “to cover food, fluff, and fashion. They’d hire you to do the ‘safe’ things.” Ivins never played it safe, always opting instead to tell the truth in bold and ruthless terms.

In response, her critics challenged her femininity, often taking unprofessional jabs at her physical appearance. At six feet tall and with wild red hair and freckles, Ivins had grown accustomed to standing out in a crowd. Ivins once wrote, “I should confess that I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant in Texas Womanhood: the spirit was willing, but I was declared ineligible on grounds of size early.” Rather than bending to take up less space or toning down the harshness of her writing, Ivins swung the criticism to her advantage, laughing along with her detractors and reinforcing the strength of her public persona. When the Minneapolis Police Department, for example, named their mascot pig after her, she took it in stride and referred to it for the rest of her life as one of her proudest accomplishments. Her refusal to wilt under these circumstances undermined her detractors and gave her power over her own image.

Ivins used what has been described as a “folksy populist voice” in her writing, relying heavily on Texas jargon and a casual familiarity with her readers. She also extended this familiarity to the subjects of her columns, whom she often gave humbling nicknames (she consistently called George W. Bush “Shrub” and Rick Perry “Governor Goodhair”). Though she used humor as a means of access, her attacks were deeply searing and always intended to expose with absolute precision. “There are two kinds of humor,” she once wrote. One is the kind “that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That’s what I do.” Ivins had a keen sense of when her colloquial Texas voice would prove most useful, and when it would be more effective to drop into what her friends called her “Smith voice,” a more traditionally intellectual tone that she groomed in her years on the East Coast. Her savviness in balancing the “cornpone” with the highbrow earned her many a comparison to Mark Twain.

As Ivins honed her feisty voice and satirical style writing about the outrageous political happenings in her home state, her pluck began to garner her national attention. In 1976, the New York Times took notice and hired her as a political reporter. Though she was writing for a much wider audience, she maintained her provocative flair and trademark Texas brashness. She was constantly dodging trouble with her editors for her bawdy content, and a particularly lewd comment about a chicken-plucking competition led to a demotion. She had been working as Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief, but the Times moved her back to New York City where her creativity could be more closely monitored. In 1982, Ivins left the Times and moved back to Texas where she wrote as a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald and then the Fort Worth Times-Telegraph. She also wrote freelance for publications such as Mother Jones, The Nation, and Atlantic Monthly, creating content with wild alacrity and making appearances on television and radio at a similarly furious pace.

By the late 1990s, Ivins had locked her sights on an old high school classmate whose political star was on the rise: George W. Bush. She waged war against the eventual two-term Commander in Chief, writing two best-selling books that examined the records, decisions, and character of the Bush administration. She acted as a leader in the national conversation about his presidency across many media, using her expertise in the Texas political scene to provide special insight into his checkered history as a politician. Ivins was not merely looking to mock a figure she regarded as inept—she was savagely serious about exposing a man whose policies she believed would be detrimental to the country. In doing so, Ivins sought to hold the president and the country accountable for what was happening in the White House.

As she accumulated fame and recognition, Ivins also fought many personal battles. She wrestled with loss and isolation, and those close to her mentioned that she often expressed feeling lonely and angry. She also struggled tremendously with alcoholism throughout her life. Hard-drinking ways were part of her “Texas gal” persona for a good portion of her early career, but she ultimately found that the habit got away from her. She tried several times over the years to quit drinking; it was to become a lifelong fight. On occasion she wrote about her private life, but for the most part she poured her frustration and energy into her work.

Ivins was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, arguably at the height of her career. The cancer returned in 2003, 2005, and eventually took her life in January of 2007. Throughout her treatment she continued working just as ferociously as ever, even writing two columns in the last month of her life just before entering hospice. News of her death shook her loyal fan base as well as the worlds of politics and journalism; hundreds of tributes and obituaries appeared in many of the 400-plus newspapers that syndicated her columns.

Time and again, our country has proven its eternal appetite for political satire. Many sources of political commentary have faded in and out of our cultural consciousness, and younger generations might not recognize Molly Ivins’ name or be aware of the impact that she made. But the bite, fire, vivacity, and heart present in all of her work secure her legacy as a heroic American voice.

Red hot playwrights

A conversation with Margaret and Allison Engel

By Julie McCormick

Red Hot Patriot playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel are a force to be reckoned with. In their successful careers as journalists, they have written for papers like the Washington Post, the Des Moines Register, and the San Jose Mercury News. Allison is also a media representative at her alma mater, the University of Southern California, and Margaret runs the prestigious Alicia Patterson Foundation in Washington, DC. These twin sisters are no strangers to long-distance collaboration: over the years they have written three books together while living in different states. So after Molly Ivins’ death in 2007, the Engels’ deep admiration for Molly’s work as a journalist and lifelong love of theatre made writing a play together about her life seem like a natural tribute. Taking a few moments from their busy schedules, the Engels gave us the inside scoop on Red Hot Patriot.

Julie: How did you decide that Molly Ivins’ story needed to be a play?

Margaret: She truly is an American icon, and there is something about her personality and her courage and her intellect that we thought would connect with audiences both on the humor side of the equation and also through her passion.

Allison: People have referred to her as our Mark Twain, and I think she discovered that even though she was a very careful journalist and did a lot of original research, people listened to her, carefully, because of her humor. She said that when you laugh, people open up their ears and listen, and I think that’s one of the reasons why she has endured well past her death. She was very honest and spoke truth, but in a humorous way, so people really remembered her comments and her writing.

Margaret: Bill Moyers really said it best—he said “she made the mighty humble” and “the wicked ashamed.”

When did you both first encounter Molly Ivins?

Allison: Peggy, why don’t you go ahead.

Margaret: We started reading her when we were just out of college, or maybe even still in college, right, Allison?

Allison: I think still in college, but then we both went into journalism. As cub reporters we certainly read everything she wrote, because luckily she was syndicated in more than 400 newspapers across the country. You could get her column readily, and it was definitely something you wanted to look out for.

After college our first jobs were in newsrooms. So some of the things that Molly experienced, we also experienced just a few years later.

Margaret: I met her maybe three times, but just really to say hello and as a fan to listen to her speak at journalism conferences. We were going to be on some panels together in Denver in April 2007, but she died at the end of January.

Allison, had you met her?

Allison: No, I hadn’t. I had not.

How did you both end up in journalism at the same time?

Allison: When we were growing up, our father was in advertising, but he was a tremendous writer. He wrote a lot of history, and had gotten a master’s in playwriting himself from Columbia University. So, he would give us assignments to write at home because he felt that the elementary and high school didn’t require enough writing. And our mother is a librarian, so she would bring home every magazine and newspaper that we wanted. We also got the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press—we got two daily newspapers—and on Sunday my parents would go and get the New York Times. So there was always a lot of journalism in the house. Our dad was also one of the few Americans who subscribed to the Congressional Record. So we also had Congressional Records all over the house—we thought everybody got it. That being a voter, you got the Congressional Record.

My parents both thought that journalism was a really important profession, and I think that’s why we both ended up in it.

What were your favorite things to read when you were growing up? Was it journals and newspapers or…?

Allison: (Laughing) Well, our very first favorite thing was—our library would not stock Nancy Drew mysteries because the librarian did not feel that they were—

Margaret: literary.

Allison: They were serials. And so, Peggy and I formed the Nancy Drew fan club, mainly because there was a girl at our school who had the entire collection, and we asked her to be in the club so we could all borrow her books.

Margaret: We were pretty much speed readers. We’d get home from school and finish a Nancy Drew book before dinner.

We wrote a letter to the supposed author, Carolyn Keene, and invited her to come to our club. We actually got a letter back, a response.

Allison: Only later—

Margaret: Only later when we were in college, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the fact that Carolyn Keene was not a real person; that it was a syndicate of 14 writers.

Allison: Anyway, they wrote us back and said that, “Due to Carolyn Keene’s itinerary, she could not come to a meeting of our club,” (laughter) and we had to look up the word “itinerary.”

I don’t know whether we still have that, but it was a hilarious letter.

Margaret: In retrospect. At the time, we thought it was very official.

When did theatre first come into your purview?

Margaret: We were theatre rats growing up. We were in children’s theatre, all the way, for me, through college.

Allison: Right. We had a really good little theatre in the town that we lived in—the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. We were either taking classes there or helping out behind the scenes in productions, or going to plays…My parents took us to Musicarnival, which was a big thing in the Cleveland area; we went to New York, and they took us to Broadway plays—

Margaret: My father started out wanting to be a playwright and wrote a lot of plays, and ended up working for Helen Hayes at her community theatre in Nyack, New York. He was on the production crew. My mother tells a story of going up for a dress rehearsal, and sitting next to George S. Kaufman. He kept looking at her and couldn’t figure out what this woman was doing there. I’m now on the Helen Hayes Board in Washington, because she is from Washington, DC, and from this one auction house I have a check that Helen Hayes wrote George Kaufman. I’ve got it framed here on my desk.

Have you ever tried to write plays, either separately or together, before Red Hot Patriot?

Allison: When we lived in Iowa, I was the president of the Des Moines Playhouse, which is one of the oldest and largest community theatres in America. I was head of play selection. Then when we moved to California, I got an MFA in screenwriting at the University of Southern California. So I wrote quite a few screenplays there, and had to do some playwriting as well. But those weren’t done together.

Margaret: And I was in drama and acting all the way through my freshman year of college, and then just became a constant theatregoer of all descriptions. Then I joined the board of theatreWashington, which administers the Helen Hayes Awards. There are a number of Equity theatres here in Washington, so I’ve spent a lot of time seeing theatre—not just here in this city, but also in New York.

In that case, can you talk a little bit about your experience of writing a play together? What that was like?

Allison: We had written three books together, never living in the same place. These were for HarperCollins, and they were on regional food producers. Food Finds was really one of the first books on the American small food producer. We then turned it into a television series for Food Network when Food Network was just beginning, and it ran for seven years there and then went to the Travel Channel.

But anyway, Peggy and I did these books without being in the same state. We started out with carbon paper and mailing them, and of course as computers came in, it became that much easier. So it’s actually really easy for us to write together, because being twins, we have sort of a shorthand, and we don’t have to have these long, drawn-out conversations on the phone. Some of our conversations are literally seven seconds long. We can just say, “Page 27, do this!” and, “OK!” Click.

How did you make the decision of what moments to include verbatim in the play, and what to dramatize?

Allison: In a way, there was a very dramatic thing that actually happened in Molly’s life that really became the spine of the play and why it opens when it does. I don’t want to give that away for people who haven’t seen it, but we were lucky in that sense.

Margaret: But there also was more than the usual drama in a person’s life, with Molly’s life. And so you ask what we wanted to cut out—I mean, obviously it’s not fascinating to watch a person behind a typewriter pecking out a column. Not fascinating.

But what Molly was so adept at was really sizing people’s character up: illuminating it in a really telling and perceptive way. Which I think we’ve captured a good deal of.

Allison: Molly was very prolific, you know. She wrote for many years, so obviously there were a lot of things we couldn’t include. If people really are interested in getting that kind of year-by-year chronicle of her life, they can read her column. This is a play, not a Wikipedia entry.

Margaret: She lived in very exciting times. Civil rights, wars, Texas politics, the rise of George Bush…You know Molly was the one who pegged George Bush as “Shrub.” But she did more than just slap labels on people. She burned a lot of midnight oil working, going through the Medicaid budgets to see how children were faring. So her outrage and her humor had a terrific foundation, which is why I think people still quote her. We have a Google alert, and there’s not a day that goes by that someone isn’t picking up something from her column, or wondering what Molly would say about something contemporary.

Allison: I think that’s an important point because it does seem that a lot of commentary these days is just reacting to what someone else said or reacting to what has happened. Molly was so original in that she really did do her reporting and her legwork. And she also did it from outside the Washington–New York power-political axis. She deliberately made her base in Austin, Texas but talked about national subjects. So that really set her apart from kind of the chattering classes that were repeating the same topics.

Did you notice any similarities between playwriting and journalism as you were working on the play?

Allison: Oh sure. You have to catch people’s interest right at the beginning, you have to be able to edit, and you have to be able to tell a story economically. I’m surprised more journalists don’t write plays, because there are so many stories, so many great stories that are such perfect vehicles for plays. And I guess now that the fad of 10-minute plays is firmly entrenched, maybe there will be more journalists who do that.

Do you think that you’ll try writing a play together again?

Margaret: Oh we’ve already been asked to do two others. One by the literary estate of Erma Bombeck; that’s done and we’ve had a staged reading. And one we’re working on about Damon Runyon that his literary estate asked us to do.

In the past several years, there have been a lot of discussions about the state of journalism and where it’s going, particularly print journalism. Where do you think we are headed, and where are we right now?

Margaret: There’s still a home and a thirst and an interest in real stories and terrific journalism. It just is that there are fewer practitioners who are able to do it because the money isn’t there. But when a good story comes up and terrific journalism is being committed day in and day out—both of us serve as judges on a lot of journalism contests, and there’s just amazing material being produced. So I’m less pessimistic than some others because I still see these amazing stories. And of course, the courage that it takes to be a foreign correspondent today, where for the first time really in history journalists are being targeted for murder. It’s always been dangerous, but you were going to die in a plane crash or train collision; now it’s the easiest way to silence the truth.

Allison: Peggy runs a journalism foundation, and her fellows turn in just really extraordinary journalism, so it is still being done and in fact I guess what makes me feel positive about it is that as Peggy said, the financial rewards and the job security are no longer there, and despite that, people are finding ways to get journalism accomplished and get it out. I think it is easier to publish your own things, online, than it was pre-internet. But I do worry about the fourth estate not really acting as a watchdog as much as it should on government and the military and so forth, just because the numbers of journalists are being decimated. But somehow, there is still good journalism being done and it’s just almost more being done out of love than money.

That feels very similar to what’s happening in the playwriting world right now.

Allison: You don’t want these amazing professions to become hobbies, rather than professions.

Watch now

See her in action

Get a glimpse of Kathleen Tuner in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.

“It’ll make you happy”

See what else Kathleen Turner says about Red Hot Patriot in this interview.

A message from Ms. Turner

The two-time Tony and Oscar nominee has an invitation for you.

Introducing Red Hot Patriot

Meet the witty Molly Ivins and the powerhouse actor that portrays her—Kathleen Turner!

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Listen up

Want to listen to select articles from the program? Play these audio files online—or download and listen to them on your way to the show.

Additional resources

Our literary department wrangled up this list of resources, including descriptions of her famous books, links to her witty columns, and more—including a video interview with Kathleen Turner.

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Molly Ivins’ writing

Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?

  • This curated collection of essays and columns, published in 1991, brought Molly Ivins national acclaim when it became a bestseller. Filled with her pieces about Texas politics as well as national figures and events, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? showcases Ivins’ iconic wit and searing insight.

Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose

  • Molly Ivins wrote two books about George W. Bush, one published just before he was elected to the Oval Office, and the next published just before his second term. In Shrub, the first book, Ivins provides an analysis of Bush’s political record and presidential platform using her trademark sense of humor to urge voters to consider the politician’s questionable political history when heading to the voting booth. Bushwhacked picks up where Shrub left off in chronicling George W. Bush’s presidency and administration.

The Texas Observer’s complete archive of Molly Ivins’ articles

  • The progressive Texan news journal for which Ivins served as a co-editor and reporter through the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s has made their archives of her articles available online.

“The Uncompassionate Conservative”

  • This 2003 article in independent political journal Mother Jones takes a fed-up look at George W. Bush’s approach to issues of poverty and class difference. Writes Ivins in the article, “When it comes to dealing with those less privileged, Bush’s real problem is not deception, but self-deception.”

“A-men. A-women. A-Ann.”

  • Ivins penned this 2006 tribute to former Texas Governor Ann Richards in the Texas Observer. Ivins pays homage to the major impact that her dear friend and mentor had on women in politics, writing, “She was outrageous and courageous on behalf of women everywhere.”

Elvis Presley’s obituary

  • Red Hot Patriot mentions this famous obituary of Elvis Presley that Ivins wrote for the New York Times after Presley’s death in 1977.

About Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith

  • Based on the authors’ personal knowledge of Ivins, interviews with her family and friends, and “access to a treasure trove of her personal papers,” this biography provides a thorough narrative of her path to becoming a major public figure in journalism.

Red Hot Kathleen Turner Discusses Molly Ivins

  • A video interview with Kathleen Turner for Smithsonian Magazine in which she discusses the challenges of the role, the views she shares with Molly Ivins, and her history with the show.