The Last Liberal

A major new biography tries to explain the puzzling, enduring appeal of Ann Richards.

October 2012By Comments

Few contemporary politicians have garnered more attention than Ann Richards. A cottage industry has grown up around her, with no sign of slowing down. The past year has brought an adoring documentary, a one-woman show headed for Broadway, and, this month, a 443-page biography by her longtime friend and occasional adviser Jan Reid, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly. The puzzling part, for some, is that Richards never held national office, served a largely uneventful single term as Texas governor, and left behind a state Democratic party that is, as this season’s elections will likely demonstrate, all but dead. So what is it that keeps the Richards legend alive?

First things first: Reid’s Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards(University of Texas Press), while richly detailed and remarkably fair-minded, is not, as its subtitle claims, a “life and times” portrait, and those expecting one will be disappointed. There is precious little about Richards’s formative years: how she was raised; the role of family, schooling, or religion; the good and bad of growing up in the Bible Belt town of Waco, attending Baylor in the fifties, and marrying young. We follow her, much too quickly, as she moves about with her lawyer husband, David, and four children, arriving in Austin in 1969—miserable and unfulfilled.

Austin at the time, says Reid, was party central for hard-drinking, joint-rolling liberals, and the Richardses fit right in. The couple’s new friends—a cast of musicians, writers, and activists—offered a kinship they found irresistible. While some description is essential to understanding Richards’s descent into alcoholism, the breakup of her marriage, and her political awakening, there is far too much fluff in these pages, as Reid squeezes a vast array of minor players into redundant scenes of excess. But after that, the book takes off—it sparkles. Reid is a clever stylist and a terrific storyteller. He has a fine grasp of Texas politics and no ideological ax to grind. As an account of Richards the politician in Lone Star surroundings, Let the People In is about as good as it gets.

Beginning her career as a member of state legislator Sarah Weddington’s staff in the mid-seventies, Richards became a favorite of political heavyweights like the sweet-tempered Bill Hobby and the famously tyrannical Bob Bullock. She was smart, irreverent, and fun to be around. Her drinking buddies included University of Texas faculty types as well as their least-favorite regent, Frank Erwin. When her husband chose not to run for Travis County commissioner in 1976, Ann decided to do so instead. It was a gamble, given her alcoholism and marital problems, but a natural politician emerged. Ann the Austin earth mother in blue jeans and peasant blouses became Ann the brassy Texan in designer suits and big hair.

Her victory added further strain to a failing marriage. Over time, Richards took up with the writer Bud Shrake. They never married, but their relationship—they termed it “going steady”—lasted until her death, in 2006. “I figured then, and still do, that [their sex life] was none of my business,” says Reid, who had access to their revealing, often flirtatious correspondence. “Yet there was no question their romance was profound.”

Richards proved herself a fine county commissioner, focusing on improved services for the poor and overseeing the construction of the Loop 360 bridge spanning Lake Austin, now a city landmark. She also quit drinking, which enhanced her image as a fighter confronting the obstacles of everyday life. In 1982 Richards ran for state treasurer and won. It was a clear step up the political ladder, but hardly a launching pad. The two previous state treasurers were named—trust me here—Warren G. Harding and Jesse James.

Richards was part of the great Democratic sweep of 1982—a victory less about the revival of Texas liberalism, it turned out, than the troubles of Republican governor Bill Clements, whose doomed reelection bid in the midst of the Reagan recession took the rest of the ticket down in flames. Mark White became the governor, with a host of ambitious Democrats lined up for future runs. Richards was well down that list, Reid tells us, a respectable state treasurer with an uncertain future.

Then came “The Speech”—Richards’s brilliantly delivered keynote at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, best remembered for the withering put-downs of fellow Texan George H. W. Bush. Reid provides a delicious take on a familiar story—why she was chosen, how the speech was put together—based on interviews and a careful mining of Richards’s personal papers. The speech did far more to advance Richards’s career than to damage Bush’s, and one gets the impression that Reid, who admires both of them, is content with this outcome. At the very least, it gave Richards a leg up in the 1990 governor’s race.

Sometimes the material handed an author is so good that the best thing to do is stand back and let the story tell itself—Reid’s sure strategy for the 1990 election. In the Democratic primary, Richards, who had strong liberal support inside Texas and beyond, was up against Governor White and Attorney General Jim Mattox. White’s major TV ad showed him walking past a wall lined with the photographs of convicts who had been executed since he took office. Mattox ghoulishly trumped that, boasting that he personally had attended 32 executions. During the campaign’s final debate, Mattox leaned over to Richards and said, “Ann, you look awfully sober tonight. If you’re not off the wagon after what you’ve been through the last two weeks, then you’re cured.” He was likely referring to rumors he had helped spread about cocaine use and lesbianism, but Richards had made several gaffes on her own, none worse than her inexplicable comment that “no legislator, no judge, and no bureaucrat has any business in determining whether a white woman has an abortion or not.” The race ended in a tarnished Richards victory.

Enter Clayton Williams, the oilman and rancher who had just spent millions to secure the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Few people expected Richards to beat him, Reid reminds us, but few could have imagined how relentlessly self-destructive Williams would be. Though the story of the campaign has been told many times, Reid does a vivid job of recounting Williams’s numerous blunders, such as advising rape victims to “just relax and enjoy it,” vowing to “head and hoof” Richards and “drag her through the dirt,” and calling her a liar at a dual campaign event and then refusing to shake her proffered hand. “Boys, this sucker is over,” she knowingly told her staff. “He must have lost his mind.” She won by 100,000 votes.

Richards had been lucky. Running against Williams was a gift. The up-and-coming Republican Rick Perry beat Jim Hightower that November for agriculture commissioner, and Kay Bailey Hutchison became the new state treasurer—both with Karl Rove’s assistance. As governor, Richards pushed a moderate agenda, little of which, Reid acknowledges, saw the light of day. Her plans were often blocked by her former pal Bob Bullock, the volcanic lieutenant governor, who mocked Richards and her staffers as “a bunch of hairy-legged lesbians.” Opening the doors of state government to women, blacks, and Hispanics “was the promise on which Ann best delivered,” says Reid. But her attempts to bring ethics reform, defeat a concealed weapons bill, and increase social services went nowhere. She presided over more executions than Bill Clements and Mark White combined, her sole acts of clemency being two 30-day stays. She did make some headway in providing drug and alcohol programs for state convicts, but it occurred within the context of an enormous penitentiary expansion mandated by a federal civil rights suit. “Who would have ever dreamed,” Reid concludes, “that Ann Richards would end up framing her legacy not as one of social justice and women’s rights, but of a vastly expensive prison-building spree that doubled the number of people in Texas prisons?”

Still, she expected to win reelection in 1994, describing her Republican opponent, George W. Bush, as “some jerk.” While Richards coasted, Bush ran a measured campaign, focusing on bipartisan issues like education reform and holding his own in the televised debates. There would be no fireworks, no Clayton Williams moments; Bush trounced Richards by more than 300,000 votes. On election night, Bill Clinton called to console her and claim that his own troubles had caused her loss. The national press, which mostly adored Richards, blamed Clinton too. “But I have never believed that,” Reid writes. “The outcome was not preordained. Ann blew that election all on her own.”

Though just past sixty, she would never run again. Commuting between Austin and Manhattan, Richards raked in money as a lobbyist for special interests, including Big Tobacco. Reid offers no grand vision for us to mull over because, in truth, Richards didn’t appear to have one, beyond the promise of a clean and fair administration, though he does provide an explanation of sorts that may resonate with some of Barack Obama’s more disappointed followers. Soon after Richards’s election, she and her staff pondered the obvious political question: should she try to shake things up as a progressive reformer—taking on big business, pushing for a state income tax—and risk being a one-termer, or should she govern more pragmatically, seeking smaller victories and looking to win reelection down the road? Richards chose the latter approach and lost anyway, leaving her supporters in disarray.

It’s tempting to recall Richards as a liberal firebrand, and that’s fine. But what comes through clearly in Reid’s account is something more poignant, if less iconic: her stubborn determination to live life on her own terms, in her own unconventional way. “You know,” she said a few years before her death, “I was going to have a family. I was going to have this lovely house . . . and I was going to have a bunch of kids named Dick and Jane, and we’d have Buff and Spot.”

And the truth be told, she added, “it just bored the living hell out of me.”

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