Meet the Governor: Ann Richards

As an unenlightening and uninspiring campaign nears its conclusion, Texans must choose between two candidates who have a large appeal to small numbers of people but a small appeal to large numbers of people.

October 1990By Comments

Riding shotgun in a mammoth Suburban barreling from Port Arthur to Beaumont, the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas is putting on her face. Balancing a compact on one knee, splaying a lipstick between two taut fingers like a smokeless stogie, Ann Richards retouches while she gets the drill from her entourage – two trial lawyers, a football coach, her son Dan, a press aide. It is late afternoon, and she is heading for a meeting with black supporters. “He’ll be the biggest contributor there?” she asks of one name on the invitation list, as she fixes a line under her eyes. “Do you know what he does for a living?” she asks of another, sketching in her mouth with a red pencil.

It has been an antic East Texas summer day, just a shade out of kilter, and the candidate looks tired. Coffee with the boys before a Rotary luncheon speech in Beaumont was interrupted by an eccentric local woman who fluttered around Richards like an anxious moth. Then the Rotary speech got off to a slow start because each visitor – and there were many – was required to stand and be greeted by the eerie, high pitched whistles of the members. Richards’ appearance had a dissonance of its own – something about the bold red suit and yellow blouse, the spectacular snowy-white hair, and the weathered face that could belong to a rancher’s widow seemed out of place in this baroque part of Texas, where things tend to be intricate and obscure. She seemed a bit stiff, and her fabled humor wasn’t coming across. A mildly off-color joke seemed indelicate, and her message of a New Texas – which includes “buying,” “building,” and “selling” everything from mohair to pasta manufacturing plants to supercolliders – did not galvanize this Golden Triangle group. The Beaumont Rotary listened politely to Ann Richards, but the Beaumont Rotary was unmoved.

Later, she blossomed before her truest believers at the opening of a new headquarters in a sun-bleached strip shopping center in Nederland. This was a picture-perfect Democratic crowd – working-class blacks and Hispanics, single mothers with small children, thick young women in T-shirts, and grizzled union men who have toiled far too long in petrochemical plants. When Ann Richards pulled into the parking lot, it was hard to tell who needed whom more, whether she had jumped from the Suburban or had been pulled from it by the adoring surge. “HaharyewDarlin!Haharyew!” she would say, and the disappointment of the morning faded away.

Now, heading back to Beaumont, she must keep up a good front. But the face beneath her freshly applied mask belongs not to the easygoing, irreverent Ann Richards of Austin mythology but to the embattled Ann Richards of post-primary, post- Jim Mattox reality. Behind the shadow and liner, her clear blue eyes are pained and angry, bearing a look that is at once assessing, impatient, and pleading. She snaps her compact shut and grimaces. “Okay,” she says, “I’ve painted on everything I’ve got in my purse.”

The briefing begins again – who’s who, who hasn’t given what. On a portable phone, the coach plans her entrance to the evening’s fish fry. “Man, don’t they love those portable telephones,” Richards cracks. “It’s just like playing army.” One of the lawyers reminds her to get the names right. “You’ll be lucky if I remember your first name,” she shoots back. Then she turns toward the window and the scraggly pines along the highway.

“I tell you, it’s terrible to have a reputation for being perfect,” Ann Richards says before adding, almost to herself, “ ‘cause when you fail . . .” For a long minute, silence overtakes the Suburban, and the only sound is that of the wheels grabbing the asphalt and pushing on, regardless.

Failure and perfection have rarely been so perilously linked in the life of Ann Richards, 57, as they are now. Invincible just nine short months ago, her foundering campaign is the great mystery of this political season. This is, after all, Ann Richards, whose friends are incapable of describing her without using the word “perfect.” Ann Richards, who gets pretty near straight A’s for her terms as Travis Country commissioner and state treasurer. Ann Richards, whose keynote speech made her the darling of the 1988 Democratic National Convention and who, in last spring’s primary, trounced Jim Mattox, the proverbial meanest mother of Texas politics. And yet, it is this Ann Richards who, by late summer, could not get out from under what Austin pundits called “the negatives” – the damage done by Mattox, who fixed Richards in the minds of many voters as a divorced, dope-smoking liberal with a rabid lesbian following. It is this Ann Richards who finds herself struggling to raise money, suffering from hostile relations with a once-friendly press, searching for a strategy, and worst of all, trailing in the polls behind Clayton Williams, a candidate who only last year was seen as nothing more than a rich clown in a cowboy hat. Even among her loyal followers, the question is raised tentatively but persistently: “Why can’t Ann Richards give me a reason to vote for her?”

A blue-black blanket has settled over the East Texas sky by the time Richards arrives at the fish fry to speak before about one thousand members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union. Southeast Texas is due its slice of the economic pie, she tells this cheering crowd, which during the primary belonged to Mattox. After the speech, Richards works the line of hungry diners, standing a little closer than most people would dare, her fingers tapping a forearm here, her eyes scanning a face there like a lover searching for the once acceptable truth. In this hard-times crowd, people seem both drawn to and dizzied by the buffed and polished Richards. Each time she stops to press the flash, someone seems to have a camera ready. A minuet ensues: Richards steps forward, and though she is exhausted, she strikes a pose and offers a fresh, glittering smile to the exploding flash. Then she steps out, into the arms of the next person waiting in line, and the blinding light erupts in her face again. Step, turn, flash; step, turn, flash – it goes on for an hour, an hour and a half. But each time a fan points the camera, Ann Richards, lips red, hair white, eyes blue, offers herself anew. That is what’s required, and she is going to get it right, every time, because that’s what she was raised to do.

Richards grew up with an ambition as fierce as it was unfocused. “Mama and Daddy had high expectations,” she says in her autobiography, Straight From the Heart, “but exactly what they were neither they nor I knew. I just knew that my standards were way beyond me. Way beyond me. It seems like I was scared all the time.” To stop being scared, young Dorothy Ann Willis developed a simple rule: Meet every expectation – perfectly. Richards’ father, Cecil, a pharmaceutical salesman, passed on his charm and writ, and as he taught his daughter to hunt and fish, he also instilled in her a belief that the world was open to her in any way she chose. But Dorothy Ann’s mother, Iona, would teach her that progress did not come without great effort; she was a woman driven to give her only child everything she had lacked, from cashmere sweaters to vastly expanded social vistas.

Dorothy Ann grew up in Waco; if it was for a “snobbish kind of town,” according to Ann’s former mother-in-law, Eleanor Richards; to Iona it was a place from which to launch her daughter into the wider world. She supervised the building of a house large enough for Dorothy Ann to entertain her friends properly, and she saw that her daughter had her hair permed just like all the other stylish girls in town. This was not a joyous journey but a determined struggle to transcend what had been a life of Depression-era deprivation. There was little time for fun and games. “If I went to play with somebody in the neighborhood I could never stay longer than an hour,” Richards recalls in her book.

If life wasn’t always fun, it certainly had to look like it was. The Willis family placed value not on scholarship – the one book Richards had while growing up was Heidi – but on personality, on entertainment. Telling stories was the ticket: Dorothy Ann, groomed to be a star, excelled in courses in expression and was soon playing the lead in school plays and winning statewide debate contests. Though her achievements could be used to battle her fears, the fears remained. “When you live like that, you always feel like you’re faking it; like sooner or later they will all catch on and that will be the end of you,” she wrote in her book. It was this fear that would shape her life. To the outside world, Dorothy Ann projected a picture of confidence; inside, she felt like an impostor, whose myriad accomplishments were achieved by someone else. Even her name wasn’t right. She dropped the “Dorothy” in high school – it was too country. Just being herself would never be good enough.

Ann’s determination paid off in the most important victory a young woman could win at that time: In 1953, at nineteen, she married the handsome dark-eyed son of one of the town’s prosperous families, David Richards. It was Richards’ family who exposed Ann to the wider world, the world of ideas and values – she was awed not only by the level of dinner-table debate but by her mother-in-law, a regal woman who served for a time as a national board member of the League of Women Voters. In the beginning, Ann seemed to have little time for such aspirations. Once married, she replaced the vague ambitions of her parents with the specific demands of society. She pushed herself to become the perfect wife and perfect mother: While Dave pursued his legal career, first at school in Austin, and then in Dallas, Ann kept house and raised their four children according to the conventions of the day. Her kids would have the best costumes for their school plays; her husband would have the best meals at his dinner table.

Wherever the couple lived, they formed the center of a charmed circle. Ann had taken on Dave’s passion for liberal politics. Their Dallas home became a haven for the disenfranchised, everyone from carpenters to poets to politicians. Ann, pretty and sharp-tongued, became their star. She could cuss and laugh as loud as any man, and she could argue civil rights as well as she could make tamales.

And she was funny. The North Dallas housewife began performing for North Dallas women Democrats in skits that poked fun at Ralph Yarborough and LBJ; she delighted friends with the racy Christmas cards she made with a pal. One year the two women dressed as Mary and Joseph in the stable – the caption read, “It’s a girl.” Another year they took on Richard Nixon, posing with a horse’s rear end and a bag of manure. Ann could make you laugh, but she could challenge you too: She drew apolitical friends into civil rights marches, and it was her children who taught the other kids in the neighborhood to boycott the grapes in canned fruit cocktail.

The Richardses moved to Austin in the early seventies, weary of Dallas conservatism. They were home at last. Their friends who had settled south ahead of them greeted the couple’s arrival with a canoe regatta on Town Lake and a cabrito feast at their new house in the hills west of town. Dave developed a high profile civil rights practice – setting up shop in an old house shared with the Texas Observer, the journal of Texas liberalism. Friday nights the couple would meet at Scholz Garten with Austin’s loyal liberal opposition – politicians, editors, writers, and activists – to argue politics far into the night. The more iconoclastic, the better. That was a time when being a liberal Democrat put you on the cutting edge of state politics: Urban Texas was a thicket of injustices – poor and mostly segregated, crooked and uncaring – and this group, following traditions established by the Observer in the fifties, wanted nothing more than to force Texas to reform itself.

But there was nothing dour about this crowd. Up at the Richardses’ house, you might find Jerry Jeff Walker playing the guitar or Bud Shrake checking in for a late-night visit just before, say, sunrise. More often than not, it was Ann who kept the party going. When she wasn’t organizing the canoe trips on the Rio Grande and the gourmet breakfasts that accompanied them, she was turning Sunday drinks by the pool of their sprawling home into a Sunday feast. It was easy, she would tell her friends. The secret to having a great party was (a) never wash your floor beforehand and (b) never feed the guests until it got really late. She baked bread once a week and served vegetables from her organic garden; exotic chickens who laid blue eggs roamed the yard. She kept a box of costumes at the ready, and it wasn’t odd to catch Ann at an Austin party dressed as Santa Claus or Dolly Parton. She achieved almost cutlike status: She had become such a local hero that when the child of a friend split his head open on the playground, the mother took him to Ann instead of a doctor. “Everybody wanted to be with her, around her,” recalls one old friend. “You didn’t dare sleep late or take naps, because you’d miss something fun.” It was obvious – Ann was perfect. Or at least she had created a perfect mask.

There is a story that Ann Richards tells in her autobiography and that she told that summer day in Beaumont to a group of attentive black supporters. “You know, when I was a girl,” she began as she was served a piece of chicken, “the men always at first, leaving the wings, the backs and the necks for the women and children.” Then Richards grinned and took a bite. “It teaches you,” she said slyly, with a small but theatrical shrug, “to like the worst part of the chicken.” The self-starters in the crowd laughed that day, knowing that the message was that it did nothing of the sort. But when Ann Richards was a young woman, she was still trying to make the best of a life that was not as fulfilling as she had thought it would be.

During those early years, Ann may have been outwardly charming, but internally she was churning. Raised to expect more from life and knowing that somehow, somewhere, there was more to life, she kept finding herself instead with more . . . babies. Friends sensed a growing restlessness on Ann’s part, as she stayed home while her husband was the courtroom point man for liberals on pivotal issues like redistricting. Yet she came from a time when a woman who didn’t honor the role of homemaker was a woman who was a failure; if Ann felt both overwhelmed and unchallenged by her roles as supermom and superhostess, she still lacked the sense that she could supplement them with something more satisfying. She inched out of the house by volunteering to manage legislative campaigns for other women, including Sarah Weddington and Wilhelmina Delco, but come nightfall, Ann was home making dinner for the family. And if she was angry, she had to hide it, which, in Ann’s case, often took the form of humor. Friends tell of the time when Dave suddenly announced that he was taking an Easter camping trip with one of his buddies. Dutifully, Ann packed his meals. Unwrapping his food on the trail, her husband found things like dried apricots, Right Guard deodorant, and Massengill Douche Powder.

Richards could not foresee the benefits the women’s movement held for her, but other people did. In the spring of 1975 a group of people approached Dave to run for country commissioner; when he declined, they approached Ann. She accepted the draft and won the election handily, against an uninspiring three-term incumbent. Still, a good many of Ann’s friends confess to being surprised when the former housewife and volunteer agreed to a full-time, high-pressure job. They must have been doubly surprised when she took to her new work so avidly – and not just by expanding the human services programs that came under the country’s jurisdiction. Gone were the peasant blouses, blue jeans, and lectures on the rights of the oppressed; now Ann Richards could be found in a designer suit, out-bubba-ing the bubbas by picking her teeth with an ivory toothpick and cleaning her fingernails with a Swiss army knife during commissioners’ meetings. (Read at least one story on the sports page a day, she’d advise her friends, so you’ll have something to talk to men about.) The outsider was determined to get inside. Richards began to cultivate the likes of then Austin American Statesman editor Ray Mariotti, UT regents chairman Frank Erwin, and Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby – all held in abject disdain by the Scholz crowd.

The commissioner’s race set a precedent: Richards would not seek an office but would accept a draft for a job she might not have been secure enough to claim for herself; she would then attack the task like a method actress playing on a real-life stage, perfecting everything from policy to wardrobe. In every case, Ann grew as a person and as a politician, but the growth was often a little unnerving for those who had known her in a previous incarnation.

The most obvious casualty was her marriage. Richards says in her book that she worried that her new life in politics would cost her husband. Her fears proved to be well grounded. When the time came, Ann could temper her liberalism with pragmatism to get ahead and take her place in a world she and her husband, as outsiders, had once scorned. It was Ann who could hold her own at both Scholz’s and in a limousine plotting strategy with Lloyd Bentsen, while Dave remained the uncompromising American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.

But even more damaging than politics was Ann’s drinking. For her, alcohol was as effective a mask as the costumes she loved to wear to Austin parties. Friends are now loathe to recall the extent of her drinking then, partly out of protectiveness and partly because they were drinking so much themselves. (From Scholz’s to the Quorum club, heavy drinking was part of the initiation rites of politics.) Richards herself is skimpy on the details in her book, though she does admit that she could put away three or four martinis a night with the boys. Still it’s clear from the little that is said that drinking also anesthetized the dissatisfaction in her marriage and the discontentment with herself. “I was screaming for someone to help me . . . ,” she wrote. “I couldn’t hear it but I was saying, ‘I’m so afraid and so desperate, and I can’t keep up, and the only thing that really matters to me is falling apart.’”

Like so many alcoholics, Richards never wanted to see that her drinking was killing her. In 1980 she gave it up only after a friend, Austin attorney Jane Hickie – now a high-level campaign adviser – assembled family members and a group of close friends to urge her to do so. It was another draft and, subsequentially, another challenge to which she devoted herself with typical ferocity. Out of her marital problems and her recovery from alcoholism came yet another incarnation: Richards mixed her star quality with her personal struggles and emerged a political feminist of national stripe, alongside the likes of Liz Carpenter and Dianna Feinstein. “Let me tell you, sisters, seeing dried egg on a plate in the morning is a lot dirtier than anything I’ve had to deal with in politics,” the once happy homemaker would declare to a rally of equally furious females. If the men who had watched her gaily wisecracking around her swimming pool were surprised by the vitriol of her rhetoric, well, the past had only limited applications. This was a new Ann for a new time, and she would go it alone. She and Dave divorced in 1984.

Meanwhile, there had been another draft, in the form of a call from an old friend, former land commissioner Bob Armstrong. The incumbent state treasurer was about to be investigated by a grand jury – would Ann consider a run against him? Again, Richards assented. Once elected in 1982, she swiftly turned herself to modernizing an office locked for decades in the treasury burned late, with Ann Richards padding the halls in her stocking feet. She professionalized the handling of the state’s money, got higher interest rates for state deposits, and stopped the hoary practice of using those deposits to curry favor with bankers, all the while keeping her lifelong fears at bay. No one could ever, would ever, accuse Ann Richards of being an impostor. She did her job too damn well.

For anyone, the Texas governor’s race is a grueling crucible. Quite simply, Texas is a huge state with a lot of people in it, so all the problems of modern politics are magnified here. You need to know how to raise money, and you need to know how to spend it. (Television time in Dallas and Houston, for instance, is among the most expensive in the county.) You need an organization and a staff with flexibility and vision, and you need a clear strategy on everything from your own message to dealing with the opposition. Now that Texas has almost as many Republicans as Democrats, Democratic candidates must choose between appealing to the party’s traditional base or broadening it – the person who opts for stirring up his own troops runs the risk of appearing too partisan, and the person who reaches out to conservatives unleashes charges of selling out. This race had one more problem: Jim Mattox, whose dark presence helped convince seasoned politicians like Henry Cisneros and Bill Hobby that life was too short for a 1990 gubernatorial bid. All of these problems and pressures came to fall upon the shoulders of Ann Richards, a candidate who may have been bright and engaging but who had never really been examined or tested.

From the beginning of the campaign, there was tentativeness. As had happened so often before, Richards had to be drafted into the job. After Hobby and Cisneros dropped out of the race, Richards held a series of private meetings with her Austin women – some professionals, some close friends from Richards’ preprofessional days – was whether Ann should run for governor or lieutenant governor. Richards wavered, but the Austin chorus was firm. “No, Ann – governor,” they told her. Still, Richards remained cautious even while trying to build an organization in early 1988. “I’m thinking about running,” she would say, which was not enough to convince veteran operatives to sign on.

Richards would need the help of the pros. As clear as her strengths were to those who knew her and had worked with her, beyond the boundaries of Austin her political identity was not fixed. Then, too, she had no money, and her only network – an association of professional women called Leadership Texas, which she had helped found – was not politically experienced enough to serve as a political organization. Yes, the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention had raised her visibility and loosened contributors’ purse strings, but that was just a start. To be elected governor, Richards would need a powerful message that could portray her as more than a women’s candidate and more than a liberal in the Austin tradition of, say, Lloyd Doggett, who was swamped by Republican Phil Gramm in the 1984 U.S. Senate race.

At first, Richards appeared to be creating the kind of campaign staff who could do just that. She did bring in trusted friends and associates – the ever-present Jane Hickie and Mary Beth Rogers, Richards’ right hand at the treasury. But she also assembled an impressive team of political operatives: pollster-consultant George Shipley of Austin and national media consultant Robert Squier. Mark McKinnon, of the Austin and national media consultant Robert consulting firm Rindy and McKinnon, was in charge of press relations. For her campaign manager, Richards selected Glenn Smith, a former staffer of Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby who had never run a campaign before but whose instincts and judgment came highly recommended. At the time, it seemed just the right mix of pros and volunteers.

And for a while, things looked terrific. Gearing up for the March primary, Richards workers blocked Mattox from getting crucial endorsements from the AFL-CIO and the Mexican American Democrats. Money was scarce, but the staff knew how to capitalize on free media: Rindy and McKinnon devised an environmental swing up the Gulf Coast that won over a skeptical press. Richards looked like a sure thing. Shipley told the Wall Street Journal last January that his candidate could leave the state and still make a runoff. Not only was Richards ahead in the polls but her negative rating was far lower than that of Mark White or Mattox – only 15 percent.

But behind the scenes at the Richards headquarters, there was trouble. No one could decide who Ann should be. “Everyone wanted to let Ann be Ann,” the candidate says astutely. “And they all had different Anns.” While old friends complained that they weren’t seeing enough of the irrepressible, uninhibited Ann, both the pros and the feminists scurried like hosts cleaning up before a fancy cocktail party to portray Richards as a bland but capable professional. (“What if someone got tapes of Ann as Harry Porko?” one female attorney suggested gravely to me, referring to Richards occasional public performances as a male chauvinist pig, complete staff wasn’t functioning well. The trouble had started with Glenn Smith’s appointment as campaign manager in the summer of 1989. That move, along with Smith’s insistence that he report to Richards directly, caused friction in Richards’’ longtime relationship with Jane Hickie, who had seen her through several previous campaigns and was then a member of Richards’ inner circle. When Smith took control Hickie was clearly wounded. She and Richards stopped speaking for a time, and as the professionals gained more and more control, a schism formed between Richards’’ female loyalists and the male political consultants. As the latter grew in influence, there was grumbling by women staffers that the boys had taken over. On the other side, the men around the campaign were uncomfortable with the overwhelmingly feminist character of the office. Like so many of the women there, Hickie could be rhapsodic on the subject of Richards, but she seemed barely aware of the presence of male staffers. Perhaps the men were defensive and perhaps Hickie was harried: either way, neither side worked well together, each claiming every small victory and laying blame for every small defeat. To the boys, the girls were amateurs obsessed with flow charts and schedules who wanted to manage the campaign like the treasury. To the girls, the boys were overzealous guerilla fighters, dragging them into a needlessly dirty campaign.

Richards herself was no help in this struggle. She was uncomfortable with Smith and, at times, undercut him in front of the staff, adding to the boys versus girls rivalry. Her perfectionism now showed itself as an irritable indecisiveness. When staff members or consultants presented Richards with an idea, she would submit it to so many people for approval that it would be picked apart until there was no way to reassemble it again. Staffers who challenged her too often found themselves facing a cold-eyed stare and the risk of being frozen out permanently. Though Richards wanted to run a positive campaign on the issues, she didn’t seem to grasp the very essence of modern politics – as Clayton Williams did so well in his primary campaign – which was to use television to establish an image, credibility, and a few crucial issues that define the candidacy. Instead of talking about three things,” Says one adviser, “she wanted to talk about a hundred.”

By late winter, the campaign’s internal strains were starting to show on the outside. With the primary election approaching in March, Richards still had no working strategy – no issues with which she was identified, no personal vision to rally people around. No way, in short, to clearly answer the question, “Who is Ann Richards?” As was the case with Michael Dukakis, her failure to develop a political identity left a vacuum for someone else to fill. Jim Mattox was only too happy to oblige.

Almost from the day Richards announced her candidacy, Mattox began floating rumors alleging that she had used illegal drugs in the past. All of her closest friends and more than a few advisers had urged her to deal with any possible references to her drug use early on, either in her autobiography or in a powerful public statement: e.g., “I was a drunk, I did a lot of things I’m ashamed of, but I’ve turned my life around and I’m proud of it.” But as the pressure intensified, something about Mattox’s accusation tapped into Richards’ darkest fears – that no matter how perfect she had been since, there would never be anything but blame for the mistakes she had made long ago. She would not confess. Privately, she told friends that she was so drunk in those years that she could not remember what she had done – that certainly she had been at parties where illegal drugs had been available – but she also feared that if she admitted to one transgression, Mattox and the press would accuse her of another, and another, until her campaign lay in tatters. That is almost what happened anyway. Following a televised debate in March, reporters demanded that Richards confess, screaming, “Answer the question? Answer the question?” The candidate looked stunned. Over the next few weeks, her posture stiffened, like a person in serious pain, and she seemed afraid to venture out. She plummeted in the polls, while the issue crystallized all the doubts that people had begun to have about Ann Richards.

The issue was not just possible drug use but also a perceived insincerity and lack of control – Richards appeared to be the incompetent impostor that she had long feared she might be. Within the campaign, the division grew even deeper. While the drug question was on everybody’s mind, Robert Squier produced two commercials that only added to a growing image of superficiality. One portrayed Richards as a grandmother, and another stressed that she had proven that a woman could run the treasury. Both were approved by the candidate but were considered embarrassments by the women of Ann’s inner circle, and as troubled grew, the commercials became “a symbol for a campaign that had destroyed its blessed mother,” in the words of one insider.

Nor did Richards get much support from the press. For more than ten years in public office, little but high praise had appeared in print about Richards. She knew most of the Austin press corps by name and considered some of them close friends. Perhaps the expectations on both sides were unrealistic from the start: The media expected the usual slavish praise. When neither was forthcoming, the sense of betrayal on both sides was enormous. Richards had had an aversion to press conferences almost from the beginning, when a December meeting on the environment degenerated into a free-for-all on taxes. The staff had briefed her for months, but she remained uncomfortable with the material and insecure about her presentation. When the questioning got too hot and too far from her topic, Richards ended the press conference and stalked off. “Ann sees herself as a star,” explains one staffer. “Press conferences are hell on her. Challenging questions drive her crazy.” Criticism equaled failure. Growing more defensive and distrustful, Richards developed a tendency to lecture reporters on the propriety of their questions. But it was one thing to show annoyance at questions involving her possible use of illegal drugs, and another entirely too brusquely dismiss a reporter who asked a substantive question about an issue that was not on her agenda of the day. As the primary dragged on, Richards seemed to lose the will and the desire to perform. “Ann discovered something in politics she didn’t like,” says one person close to the campaign. “When she got bruised in the primary, she didn’t understand what happened. She saw politics as entertainment, not as a contact sport.”

At the end, Richards’ allegiance to positive campaigning had to go too. She took the advice of her entire campaign team—united for once – who told her that she would have to knock White out of the race to make the runoff with Mattox. Shaken, Richards acquiesced: She accused White of “lining his pockets” while he was governor by enriching his old law firm. Though many questioned the evidence, the charge caused White’s candidacy to collapse and eased Richards into the runoff with a slim lead over Mattox. Then all the problems and broken promises seemed briefly, euphorically irrelevant: Mattox’s nasty accusations had pushed voters too far. Richards smashed him by fourteen points.

But victory did not bring peace to the Richards camp The candidate and the women close to her grumbled that the margin Glenn Smith had engineered wasn’t big enough – 25 points would have been more like it. “Ann quarrels with success,” says one adviser. “She’s never satisfied/” Weary, Smith stepped down to the role of consultant, and Richards invited Jane Hickie back into her inner circle. Mary Beth Rogers, who had taken leave to write a book, returned as campaign manager. As precious weeks went by, the campaign was rebuilt from scratch. With the managers in charge, the guerilla fighters found themselves relegated to the periphery. But even though Richards was now surrounded by the people she trusted most, her campaign remained stalled. Soon it became clear that the problem had less to do with boys versus girls or pros versus amateurs than with the candidate herself: No one had the ability – or the fortitude – to get Richards moving. At a time when Richards could have been bold or the Mega Borg oil spill or by taking on Bil Clements in the fight over school finance – she was seen speaking instead to groups whose loyalty was already assured. Or she was simply nowhere to be found.

Key strategic decisions were not being made. Perhaps it would be extremely difficult for Richards to win over good ol’ boy Democrats, but she seemed slow to cultivate the Republican women who might have been gently persuaded to abandon Clayton Williams. Though, Henry Cisneros, Barbara Jordan, and Bill Hobby had signed on as campaign co-chairmen, Richards did not seem confident and in charge. (Yet she could be stunningly effective: In one rare confrontation with Clayton Williams at a meeting of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, Richards had her opponent backing off, wide-eyed and sputtering, as she chid3d him for his negative attacks.) More profoundly, the Richards camp seemed to lack an understanding of the conservatism that still lies deep in the hearts of many Texans: “Do you think Texas really worries about homosexuals?” one staffer asked me after Clayton Williams’ surrogates had launched a whispering campaign about Richards’ strong lesbian support. She could not lead, she could only respond, as attacks from Williams – on homosexuals, on flag burning – forced her to choose between old loyalties or losing even more ground.

To make matters worse, the campaign once again had money problems. Cash had been short from the beginning – one reason for little or not positive television advertising in the early stages of the primary campaign. The ledger slowly began to improve after Richards brought in a Washington, D.D.-based fundraiser named Scott Gale in early 1989. Before Gale came aboard, Richards had raised about $150,000 a month for fourteen months, using a grass-roots community approach. After Gale set up his system based on one-on-one fundraising, he raised $3.5 million in seven months. But after the runoff, Gale’s position was sealed back by the new regime. There were personal reasons (Gale could be abrasive) and philosophical differences (Gale wanted Richards to stick to his fundraising system exclusively, while other staffers wanted to maintain some grass-roots work). Unfortunately, Richards’ team also believed that with a system in place, Gale was no longer needed as overseer. They assumed that the big Mattox-White contributors would simply flock to Richards’ side because she was the Democratic nominee. That did not happen. By midsummer Richards’ campaign reports revealed that she had no more than $900,000 in the bank, with the toughest, post-Labor Day stretch of the campaign reports revealed that she had no more than $900,000 in the bank, with the toughest, post-Labor Day stretch of the campaign yet to begin. One reason Richards seemed invisible during the summer was that she had to spend her time trolling for cash instead of campaigning for votes.

So it has happened that Ann Richards comes to the crucial last months of the campaign short on not just money, media and a message but respect. The woman who has been able to wear so many faces for so many years has yet to find one that suits her – this time there have been too many people, with too many conflicting demands to meet. In the public’s eye, the old Ann is an impostor now; the real Ann is a frightened, indecisive, and very angry candidate. And it is almost as if clayton Williams has risen fully formed to pick up where Jim Mattox left off, able to outspend Richards two to one, able to define himself with a powerful – if somewhat fictional – clarity. Maybe, the pundits say, she will find a way to unmask Williams; her attacks on his business ethics that began last August seem to be making some headway. Most likely, they say, she would make a much better governor than she is a candidate. But she has to get there: “People who ought to be for her don’t know why she’s in the race,” opines one frustrated political analyst. It is possible to wonder whether, at this point, Ann Richards knows herself.

On a late-summer morning in a conference room high atop an Austin office tower, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is sewing a gold button on a purple silk jacket. As usual, she must accomplish several things at once: conduct an interview, which will be interrupted, briefly by a meeting with some potential contributors, before proceeding to an appearance in San Antonio at one-thirty. But it is the button that holds Richards’ attention, and in spite of all the pressures and commitments, she sits down at the conference-room table and, after threading the needle expertly, begins to sew. Two campaign aides are in the room, but it has not occurred to her to delegate this task. Somehow, in Ann Richards’ mind, the button, the fundraising, and the interview have assumed equal importance.

There is something wrenching about this moment, and I find myself feeling the protectiveness of Richards that is shared by her friends, wanting to blame is shared by her friends, wanting to blame her exhaustion and unhappiness on the nature of modern politics, to join the chorus of complaints about fifteen-second sound bites and the post-Gary Hart era of self-righteous scrutiny. Then too, Richards succeeded at a game that far more seasoned politicians avoided, and in times past, she has proven she can be a great political player, a great team player, and a good policymaker. The unlucky circumstance of this campaign is that it has played too few of her strengths and to all of her weaknesses, and so, the public will cast their votes having seen precious little of Richards’ positive side.

But I found myself wishing, too, that she could have remembered what she wrote at the close of her own book, where she ruminates on the failure of Dukakis’ presidential bid. He didn’t have a plan, she wrote, he didn’t let people help him, and he didn’t possess a “winning personality.” Now, sadder but wiser, Richards has come to learn that a winning personality means more than the ability to entertain, that the candidate who wins is the one who shows that he or she can lead and inspire large and varied masses of people Perhaps in the next few weeks, she will prove that she can do that. The struggle will be, as it has been all along, as much a fight against her own private demons as her opponents.

After sewing on the button, Richards tells me that she has learned a great deal in this campaign – that she is capable of working harder than she could imagine, for instance, and that, when necessary, she doesn’t have to be in control all the time, that she has finally triumphed over her perfectionism. “It has taught me that I can let things go,” she said, and by way of proof adds, “I’ve got a greenhouse full of dead plants,” A look of triumph crosses her face then, as though it explained everything, as if she had finally learned that to please everyone is to please no one, as if she really believed that she could someday cease to be the Ann that everyone and anyone images.

Related Content