The Write Stuff
A master crafter pens the speeches that enrich Ann Richards’ downhome style.
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Suzanne Coleman is the only person in Texas who knows what Governor Ann Richards is going to say even before she says it. The 45-year-old speech writer has been putting words in Richards’ mouth for nine years—“so long that I have her voice; I know what she would or wouldn’t say, and I know how she would say it.” That doesn’t make life easier for Coleman. As a writer for someone who loves to give speeches—Coleman writes at least three speeches a week—the Fort Worth native works hard to maintain her edge. After all, says Coleman, “Ann has gotten a reputation that she has to live up to.”
One thing that makes Coleman’s job a speech writer’s dream is Richards’ skill at grabbing an audience’s attention and holding it. “People love to hear a good speech,” says Coleman. “It’s like a live performance. It is an unusual audience that Ann can’t sway.” And Richards does manage to sway a diverse audience, ranging from the thousands of Texans she persuaded on the campaign trail to comedian Bill Cosby. Last January Cosby tuned in to C-SPAN and heard Rich-ards’ rousing rendition of a Coleman speech that was punctuated by congressmen’s chanting, “We want Ann! We want Ann!” Cosby phoned the governor’s office to tell Richards she should run for president. He reasoned that she couldn’t be that funny and not be smart.
The self-effacing Coleman is typically modest about Cosby’s phone call. “A good speech isn’t necessarily good writing,” she says. “You have to have timing and tone. Nobody is a better judge of an audience than Ann Richards.”
Richards’ feeling for what will move a particular group was tested in a speech that Coleman thinks marked the turning point of the gubernatorial election. Coleman was preparing a speech for a fundraiser in Dallas “in September, when the campaign was at its lowest ebb,” she says. The audience was to be affluent, but Richards insisted on talking about a Hispanic woman she had seen in South Texas while on the campaign trail for state treasurer in 1982. “We had given away Ann Richards masks, and as Ann drove off after the rally, she caught sight of this tiny woman with her Ann mask on,” Coleman recalls. “We used the incident to describe how we should be looking at the world through this woman’s eyes, that the people need to be able to trust that the government will do something for them.” Coleman adds, “A good speech calls up a sense of community.” And this one did. It suggested that the little lady, and everybody else, wants to think well of their leaders, and that they should be able to: Government shouldn’t be a disappointment. “Men had tears in their eyes,” Coleman says. “People are desperate to hear someone who can connect with them and are relieved when it happens.” Contributions in Dallas began to pick up as a result.
Together Coleman and Richards can turn everyday language into a knockout punch. The Coleman method of writing for the governor is to be direct—“it’s always a stunner,” Coleman says of her speeches, deserting her modest tone. To the directness that Coleman strives for, Richards adds stories from her own life, strays from the prepared text, and often ad libs (so much so that press copies of her speeches are prefaced with the caveat “Governor Richards frequently deviates from her prepared remarks”). The result is a down-to-earth blend of substance, humor, and sincerity that engages the audience. Richards never minces words. “The Defense Department may not like to call it a subsidy,” she declared in a speech to Democratic congressmen, “but you can put lipstick on a hog and call it Monique—and it is still a pig.”
One of Coleman’s successes was the governor’s inaugural speech: “I was real pleased with that one—it was thoughtful, and we were so aware of the significance of the occasion.” She frowns and tries to recall the best-known quote: “ ‘And looking through the eyes of a child, we’ll seem as distant and ancient as portraits of our ancestors seem to us.’ It was a sensational moment in Ann’s life and our state’s life.”
Richards has gained notoriety for a dazzling command of the one-liner. The most famous—“Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”—is from the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. “Lily Tomlin’s writer, Jane Wagner, came up with that one,” says Coleman. She describes that speech as a group effort. Just the weekend before Richards was to deliver it in Atlanta, though, it had all the markings of a failure—too many writers had tinkered with it. “We all sat down at a table,” Coleman recalls, “and Ann talked through the speech and told us what she really wanted to say.” The session worked wonders. Still, “it was one of those speeches that doesn’t read on paper as well as it sounded,” Coleman says. Coleman and her colleagues had estimated about sixteen or seventeen laugh lines in the keynote address, but when the audience went wild over even the blandest statements—including “I grew up listening to Franklin Roosevelt on the radio”—Coleman says, “we knew it was going to be an incredible evening.”
Coleman is less visible than other speech writers—such asGeorge Bush’s recently hired writer Peggy Noonan—because of an important difference in their bosses. Speech writers make names for themselves partly because they are often called in to fill a void. “They are writing for speakers who aren’t good writers themselves,” Coleman says. Richards is a good writer who is obviously comfortable with the written word, and her contributions improve Coleman’s work. Besides, Coleman belongs to the old school that believes speech writers should be heard and not seen. “Your job is never to graft your personality onto someone else’s,” she says.
Suzanne Coleman doesn’t begin with the premise that she is Ann Richards’ alter ego. “The relationship is more symbiotic and complementary,” she explains. “Ann wouldn’t read something that wasn’t well written, and I couldn’t write anything for someone I didn’t believe in.” But the real reason for their success may have more to do with a character trait the two share: “To be good at speeches,” Coleman finally admits, “you have to be a sentimental fool. I am, and I know Ann Richards is too.”