A Q&A With Jan Reid
The author of Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards talks about the events and moments that influenced the former governor, how she carefully crafted her iconic image, and the challenges of writing about a dear friend.
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You were friends with Ann Richards. You worked on her campaign in 1990, and your wife, Dorothy Browne, was a close, old friend who went camping with her in the seventies, and worked for her when she was state treasurer in the eighties and governor in the nineties. Is the Ann you discovered in your research the same person you went looking for? Was she the same person you were friends with while she was alive?
Well, I knew she was a great story that first time I ever saw her, in 1979. She was playing bridge, this sexy, 47-year-old woman who had complete command of the room. And it wasn’t a crowd of nobodies. I soon learned that she’d recently been crushed, that she had just come back from treatment for alcoholism and the intervention that came before that, and that her marriage to David Richards was effectively over, though they called it a separation for a while. But that night she was playing what they all called Gonzo Bridge, with six or seven tables going, booze sloshing everywhere, and she was totally at ease.
When I dug into her life for the book, it turned out she’d always been right in the swirl of history. She’d been in the crowd waiting for Kennedy’s speech in Dallas. Her daughter Cecile had been a first grader in the Dallas school where the kids famously cheered Kennedy’s death. She and David had been involved with Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society and moved back and forth from DC to Dallas, and then finally to Austin, where she ran Sarah Weddington’s legislative office while Sarah was winning Roe vs. Wade. She worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment as a member of Jimmy Carter’s Advisory Council for Women. And she was on the board of the Armadillo World Headquarters. So there was this moment when I was writing where I thought, “God damn, I’ve gotten through 250 pages and she hasn’t done anything yet!” Right. Nothing except have this incredible life.
She was serving as Travis County Commissioner when you met her. Was there a thought that she was going to rise as high as she did?
No, no. It was hard to think she was looking at being county commissioner for the rest of her life, and she had this reputation as a tremendous speaker, but she was also deep into feminist politics, which probably wasn’t going to help her statewide.
But she looked the part, right? In the book you write that she carefully cultivated the iconic image we all came to know.
I first read about that transformation in a Mimi Swartz story. And I could see it in old photographs from before she became ‘Ann.’ At one point she had a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo. At another she was dressed like an earth mother, with her hair long and tied in the back. Then all of a sudden her clothing style changed completely. David talked about that, about how suddenly there were hair curlers everywhere. So it was pretty calculated, the image of the smart-mouthed, good-looking grandma who wouldn’t make the good old boys too nervous.
Sounds like a good subject for a book.
The project started when she died. To my astonishment, [former Texas Monthly editor] Evan Smith called and asked me to write a piece for the magazine after that [“Ann,” November 2006”]. I thought, “Shit. I’ve never been one of their political writers.” Fortunately he gave me such a tight deadline, five days or something crazy like that, that I couldn't get lost in research, couldn’t get tangled up in the story. And when it came out, people that liked her really liked it.
Then I got a call from somebody at the Woodrow Wilson presidential library. She was editing a book about governors in American history, and she was looking for rich, little pieces by real historians . . . and me. So I was going to do a piece for her mostly about Ann, but also about some female governors of both parties who came after. I think I was the first person in Texas to know about Sarah Palin. When I started that, I found Ann had left her papers to what’s now the Briscoe Center for American History at UT, and shit, just the index was 700 pages, single-spaced. I thought, Well, I know her family to some extent, a lot of people who worked for her, and now I see this stuff—this might just be possible
And three years later, you’ve got a book.
The great coup was discovering all that correspondence in her archive. It was official business, but also these funny Christmas cards she’d sent and love letters with Bud Shrake. And unlike the Bushes, and the Clintons, and even Obama, I think, she had said that a year and a half after she died, everything was to be opened save a few personnel matters and most of the death penalty cases. I’d go in and order five boxes of files at a time.
The hard part was finding a title. Nothing we tried was working. We were going to call it Ann, but weren’t crazy about that because Holland Taylor’s one-woman play was going to be called Ann, and it was coming out before the book. But the managing editor figured it out, and it should’ve been obvious: Let the People In. Hell, it’s on her gravestone.
You spend a lot of time showing Ann either witnessing or participating in things like the Armadillo and the ERA and explaining the significance of all that cultural history. It created this sense of time and place that made me feel like I was going back to Austin in the seventies. It was like picking up a novel.
I’d written a short, rock and roll book, on the making of Derek and the Dominos’ album Layla and Other Love Songs. And the editor of that had told me to quit trying to write it like a magazine piece. He had me get away from the old rule of magazine structure, which is 1) Tell them what you’re gonna tell them, 2) Tell them, 3) Tell them what you told them. He said, “Don’t give away your secrets. Write it like it’s a novel.” So I decided to do that with this, to not try anything tricky structurally, to stick fairly close to the chronology, to treat it like a novel with one commanding figure at the center of it, but make it about her times as well. And then just before I started writing the book about Ann, while I was doing all that research, I’d finished a real novel, Comanche Sundown, that got some nice notices, so I was already keyed into that approach.
Was it hard to write about a friend? Did you catch yourself feeling like you had to protect her?
I went out of my way not to. Because if I had written a puff, fluff book about her, I’d get the shit beat out of me by historians and critics. She was a bad drunk—a mean drunk, evidently—and I wrote to that effect.
But somehow she kept those skeletons in the closet. How’d she manage that? Was it simply that all the witnesses stayed loyal to her?
I think it was that. If she ever did cocaine, she didn’t do much. She did end up with a real affection for marijuana, mixed in with her voluminous vodka martinis. One reliable source attributes her first taste of marijuana to [Texas Monthly writer] Gary Cartwright.
That could’ve been disqualifying. And when the drug thing came up in the ‘90 primary campaign [against former Gov. Mark White and Attorney General Jim Mattox], the press turned on her. They’d asked hardly anything about it, and then all of a sudden they were this howling mob. She was pretty shattered by that. She told her son Dan that she didn’t think she’d make it out of the primary. She felt like everything was unraveling.
That was hard for her. Everywhere she went, you’d see this sea of young women, and she was really afraid of letting them down, of being their champion and then not being up to the task. Once she got through the primary she got much more relaxed, even if she figured the race against Clayton Williams was unwinnable. A rancher-oil man and a female liberal? What did she have to lose? That’s when she became the candidate people saw give that speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
And looking back now, the truly weird thing seems to be not that Texas elected a woman, but that we elected a liberal.
She was unapologetic about it. That was right when people started to be afraid of the word, and she veered toward the center in the natural course of things, but she was a liberal and didn’t care who called her that. And that’s the way she governed. She faced down those insurance commissioners. She did progressive stuff on toxic waste and the environment—that was one thing she and [former lieutenant governor] Bob Bullock were in synch on—pulling all those agencies into one, giving them some real power they hadn’t had before. And she did good work on the border, getting clean water and sewers to the colonias.
Did she have an Achilles’ heel?
She should have cut [former Texas Railroad Commissioner] Lena Guerrero loose [whose career imploded when she was found to have invented key parts of her resume]. But shoot, she was loyal to [Enron CEO] Ken Lay. She came to his defense when the company imploded, and he got sent off to the big rodeo. But I think her problem against Bush was that, politically, she’d met her match. It turned out that those people on the other side were good, and their candidate wasn’t bad, either.
And now they’re both viewed as once in a generation-type politicians. People were talking about her going to national level, and the person who beat her did.
I thought it was real interesting, in sizing up Bush, that he’d talked to a guy during that time period about wanting the baseball commissioner’s job. He said, “These people have me running against Ann Richards, and I don’t think I can beat her.” I don't know who “these people” were. I'm sure Karl Rove was one of them. But when it started out, Bush didn’t think he could win. But he ran a good campaign. And he won their debate.
Clayton was rude to her, and Bush was not. When she was critical or abrasive in the debate with Bush, he would just sit there and look hurt.
There was a telling reflection from Mary Beth Rodgers about when Ann slipped and called Bush a jerk during the ’94 campaign. Mary Beth said that Ann had just done what Clayton Williams had done. She was so offended that this guy had the nerve to challenge her. She knew the minute Ann said it that it would be the turning point. Karl Rove said the same at the time.
Bill Clinton’s midterm election went so bad for Dems, but you wrote that Ann never blamed him, that she always put her loss on her own shoulders.
The conventional wisdom was that she got rolled under by the national election. Hillary Clinton’s health care had been a disaster. [Newt] Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House for first time in decades. [New York governor] Mario Cuomo lost. So Ann just got caught up a tsunami of national politics. But I think she blew that election; she should have won her base. If she’d been as good a campaigner as she was against Clayton Williams, then Bush wouldn’t have been effective. He’d have had to come back and win it the next time. Still, what if she’d won? By the time she started playing at a high level, the years were already ticking off. She’d have been 65 when that second term ended. How much more is any politician going do at that age, except Reagan? She dug being a national player, but I don’t think she saw herself going any further. And she wasn’t going to break her neck to make it happen.
But here’s something that holds true even now. She changed the landscape completely. From the start, she was going to turn things upside down from the old, white, boys club. And boy, she did. Some people think some of her appointments were terrible, and some think they were great. But they were women, they were blacks, and they were Hispanics. And yeah, those kinds of people had been employed at those agencies before, but never running them. Not doing policy things. Her term was like a parabola. You’d think she would’ve limped into office considering how bruised she’d been by the primary. Her approval rating was a little better than Clayton Williams’s, but it wasn’t good. She turned that around on a dime. In six months. Burka was blowing kisses at her in Texas Monthly. And so she went on to shake things up on a bunch of levels.