In the first half of 1992, Ross Perot was not the only Texas figure to blossom as a presidential possibility. Ann Richards hit the big time too. After her joke-a-minute speech last January to about two hundred congressional Democrats and their staffers at a retreat in the piney woods of Maryland, many in the crowd rose to their feet, waving napkins and chanting, “We want Ann” and “Ann for president.” The speech, carried live on C-SPAN, so entranced comedian Bill Cosby that he telephoned Richards from Hollywood and urged her to seek the White House. Closer to home, a trendy Austin bookstore made up its own black-and-white “Ann for President” bumper stickers; they quickly sold out.
The movement was no surprise to Ellen Malcolm, the founder and president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates. She said, “I’ve got my heart set on Ann Richards’ running for president.” Richards lightheartedly alluded to the possibility herself during a March speech to the Gridiron Club in Washington. Richards told the crowd of journalists and politicians that the voters of America are looking for someone strong, someone who is solid, someone who won’t bend. Then came the punch line: “Like my hair.”
It’s no secret that most Democratic insiders (and, for that matter, most Democratic voters) are dissatisfied with 1992 presidential nominee-to-be Bill Clinton. Even in the middle of the current presidential race, the pros are already thinking about the next one. “There is absolutely no reason Ann Richards couldn’t be president,” said Washington-based Bob Squier, a well-known Democratic political consultant. If Clinton loses this year, many of the current cast of characters (Lloyd Bentsen, Mario Cuomo, Sam Nunn) will be past their peak in 1996, and the party will be desperate for new faces. One prospect is West Virginia governor Jay Rockefeller; others, not quite so new, are senators Bill Bradley and Al Gore; another is Richards.
She has the same kind of reformer appeal that Ross Perot has, combined with a twenty-year record in government. “Ann Richards is the metaphor for change that people are asking for this year,” said Squier. “This is a woman who knows no limits.” Some of Squier’s enthusiasm can be attributed to his role in designing Richards’ media strategy in the 1990 governor’s race. Still, Richards has come a long way since that desultory campaign, when her support from voters fell below 30 percent. When she faced questions about whether she had used illegal drugs, even the people closest to her thought she appeared lost and confused. Now, at a time of high anti-incumbent sentiment, Richards’ monthly approval ratings vary between 55 and 70 percent in Texas, and she’s hot, hot, hot nationally. One moment she’s fielding adoring softball questions from 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer. The next she’s staging surprise midnight raids on filthy nursing homes. There she is, having a heart-to-heart lunch with Bill Moyers; there she is, yukking it up with the press on her custom-made Harley.
Is America ready to elect a woman president? And will Ann Richards be the woman? I asked Richards herself. “I just don’t see it. I don’t feel it,” she said, over a lunch of seafood gumbo and cornbread at the Governor’s Mansion. “I really do live my life one day at a time.” But then she launched into a speech about the economy and why Americans are so disillusioned with politics, starting, as she frequently does, with a personal observation. “The thing I wish I had taught my children that I didn’t is that life is hard,” she said. (To Richards, politics is personal, something that ought to matter to ordinary people, and the things that are the most personal—kids, jobs, health—are also the most political.) “In Texas we got the message in the early eighties, when the federal government not only allowed the market to be ooded with cheap foreign oil but then sent the Navy out to escort tankers from the Middle East,” she said. “Now everyone is getting it—kids with master’s degrees can’t get jobs, couples can’t get loans or refinance houses that are worth half of what they paid for them. The whole country is undergoing perilous and massive economic changes.”
Suddenly Richards stopped herself in mid-delivery, realizing that she sounded exactly like what she was trying not to sound like: a candidate for national political office. “I’m minding the kitchen here in Texas,” said Richards, uncharacteristically squirming, “but I can’t help noticing the obvious: The nation’s ox is in a ditch.”
When Ann Richards addressed this year’s graduating class of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, she described how much politics had changed for women in her lifetime. “Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was your age, politics was a male province,” Richards told the all-female graduates. “Women made the coffee, and men made the decisions.”
No more. This, after all, is 1992, the year political pundits have dubbed the Year of the Woman. With dozens of members of Congress retiring in frustration or disgrace, it is women who are rushing to take their place. Currently, 166 women are running for Congress. California Democrats nominated two women to run for Senate seats: former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein and U.S. representative Barbara Boxer. Two other women candidates for the Senate—Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois and Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania—won unexpected primary victories, largely on the strength of a single TV image: Anita Hill, a lone black woman, sitting at a table, looking up at fourteen skeptical white male senators. “Does this make you as angry as it makes me?” asked Yeakel in her TV spots.
But voters regard presidential campaigns as being different from gubernatorial and congressional races. To ask whether America could elect a woman president might sound condescending to some and radical to others, but American political history is replete with examples of variations on that kind of question. When John Kennedy ran in 1960, the issue was whether America was ready