Ex Marks the Spot

I'm writing a book, going to the opera, and giving clients advice about how to handle politics. Do I miss being governor? Not for a second.

February 2003By Comments

Ready, willing, and abe: At the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.
Photograph by Pam Francis

NOT FOR ONE MINUTE DO I regret not being in office. Not for a second. I’ve always loved what I was doing, whatever and wherever it was. If I don’t enjoy what I am doing, I’d better change it—or change my mind. I loved being governor. I had a great time, and I loved affecting public policy. I did things that I look back on and I think: They were important; they were good. But I have a lot more freedom being out of office.

And I feel so lucky. When I left office, I didn’t have a dime. I didn’t own a house or a car. I had to get busy and make a living. I’d get real nightmares that I’d be living in a trailer in my daughter’s driveway. My God! I don’t know if it would be worse for her or me! So I felt really lucky to work with Harry McPherson and Berl Bernhard’s law firm in Washington, and then when Jack Martin [the founder and chairman of Public Strategies] talked to me about opening an office in New York, I jumped at the opportunity. Now I spend approximately half my time in New York City and half my time in Austin.

What I do is advise executives, mainly of corporations, on their relationship with the public, including government. I help them address a myriad of situations. Maybe the company has an image it would like to change. Maybe it is concerned about legislation that it would like to assist or defeat. It could be that there is a public official that they would like to have me talk to on their behalf. I’ve had clients that experienced change in personnel at the top, and the new person in charge would like the company to take on his or her vision rather than that of the previous administration. I advise companies and help them develop strategies to address their needs.

I still love politics, because it is the most pervasive institution in anyone’s life. Other than family or religion, no other activity so affects your life and the life of your children and grandchildren. Look at what will transpire in this country because of the government, and it can have good or devastating consequences. You can either do great things or you can do things that will take generations to change. I look now at the attitude of the administration and the Congress toward the environment, and for the first time in my life, I’m frightened. I can’t think of a time when I’ve really been frightened by the federal government. I look at the area of women’s rights, particularly reproductive choice. I look at what is transpiring in public schools. It’s going to take generations to alter what’s being done, and that is scary to me.

When you are able to see a finite end to your life, you begin to want to do all the things that you never did. One of the things I always said I wanted to do was live in New York for a little while, just for the experience of it—not that it’s better than home, but to be able to go to a play or a ballet or an opera almost every night. After about ten days I am a basket case. [Gossip columnist] Liz Smith, who is a good friend of mine from Fort Worth and has tickets to everything, often goes with me.

I can’t imagine not working. I don’t play golf, and I don’t have any hobbies I could fill my days with. There are times when I think I ought to be at home more, but I can’t figure out what for. Can you imagine anything worse than having me be your mother—or your mother-in-law? I mean, I could fix you. I could give you a lot of my attention. My son Dan said, “Mom, you might want to think about being home more.” I said, “Dan, I’ve been thinking about that, and I think I’ll come down to your law office and answer the phone.” And he said, “Oh, well, never mind.” My daughters laugh when I say I stay out of their business. But I think I do. They have no idea the good advice I could be giving them.

One thing I won’t do is baby-sit. Uh-uh, no way. I write the check, I bring the presents, but I do not baby-sit. I think it is very important for grandmothers to know they have a choice. If you don’t want to be a baby-sitter, you don’t have to do that. I love my grandkids and I love for them to come see me, but that’s it. Once you start sitting for one of your children, you have to do it for all of them. I now have seven grandchildren, so I could spend all my time baby-sitting and probably would. And my kids don’t seem to love me any less for it.

A part of me wants to come home and do something good. Every year I try to raise a little money for a school that was named after me down in South Texas. When I was governor I declined the opportunity to have a prison named after me, and I think I’m the only governor in history who doesn’t have a prison named after her. But to see your name associated with a public school and feel honestly that you did something to help the place—there’s no greater thrill.

Another part of me wants to go camp out on Padre Island and resist the bulldozers that are going to drill for gas on that island now that George Bush has given them permission. I still want to do that. I want to resist. Certainly I want to do whatever can be done to resist the attitude of the administration toward women’s choice. It prohibits federal employees from having their insurance cover birth control, and yet the same program pays for Viagra. If the administration wanted to take care of all those little children that they insist on being born, it might be a different thing. But 25 percent of the children in America live in poverty—one quarter of our children. It’s an outrage. On top of that, I can’t see the point at which the war in Iraq ends. I can’t see when we leave and say we’re successful. This business of a religious war that is worldwide and ongoing is too frightening for me to comprehend, and that’s the world my grandchildren will inherit. I think that if my children or my grandchildren had to fight in Iraq, I would be beside myself. Because where does it stop?

I’d like to help aging people too. People talk about their aches and pains, but no one really tells you what to do about them. The assumption is that it’s a part of getting old and you take what comes. As I watched my mother age and I saw her physical infirmities, I began to think about myself and what I need to do now in anticipation of all that. My mother started breaking bones, and I broke a bone, and I realized I needed a bone-density check. After you pass menopause, you can lose up to 30 percent of your bone density. I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in 1996. The most important thing you can do is weight-bearing exercise. So I started on a pretty aggressive regimen of taking care of myself. I work out in a gym twice a week. Here I am in tights and a T-shirt with these big guys full of testosterone.

So I started talking about osteoporosis in a lecture series, and I got an incredible response. Women lined up afterward to talk about it, because they were either dealing with osteoporosis themselves or their mothers were dealing with it. One woman called my office and asked me to write a book. She said, “What you don’t understand is that people will not get motivated talking about their experience with the subject; they will get motivated talking about your experience with the subject.” The book is coming out this year. It is appropriately titled I’m Not Slowing Down.

Liz Smith and I have talked about doing a radio show, but neither one of us can figure out how to find time to do it. We didn’t want to talk to people who called in. We wanted to call out. We both have friends all over the country, and I think it would be fun to call a city hall somewhere and ask the mayor, “What’s going on?” We met with two or three people about the show, but it ended up sounding like a lot more work than either one of us wanted to get into. Maybe we’ll get to do it one of these days.

I have resisted doing a TV show, though. I have a choice now about how I want to spend my last years, and I don’t want to wake up every morning thinking I have to outsmart somebody on television!

Ann Richards, 69, is a senior adviser at Public Strategies, Inc. She was the governor of Texas from 1991 to 1995. She lives in Austin and New York City.

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