Getting Serious

Behind the humor of Ann Richards' Democratic keynote address lay the calculation of an ambitious politician.

When Ann Richards stepped off the huge made-for-television podium in Atlanta last July, the Texas treasurer had transformed herself in 33 minutes from an obscure state official to the Funny Lady of the Democratic party. Countless newscasts would replay the sassy high point of her keynote address:

Poor George. (Ta-dum) He can’t help it. (Ta-dum) He was born with a silver foot in his mouth. (Ta-ta-ta-boom)

The Democratic convention’s star-making machinery also galvanized her nascent campaign for governor, allowing a traditional Texas liberal to project warmth, wit, and folksy charm to millions, including the Texas party activists crucial to the primary she must win in 1990. Richards’ good-ol’-gal, down-home manner masked an inner toughness and a calculating intelligence determined to exploit the opportunity that hard work, luck, and powerful friends had thrust her way.

Critics rightly noted that when Richards wasn’t delivering one-liners her rhetoric was rooted in her party’s liberal past. But supporters are gambling that an FDR Democrat born during the Depression of the thirties will speak to Texans suffering from the lingering Texas depression of the eighties. A treacherous two-year campaign will test whether the 54-year-old Richards can articulate a vision that will appeal to Texans as much as her speech skewering George Bush and stressing family values captivated national Democrats.

As Richards enjoyed her big moment, her chief rival for governor, Attorney General Jim Mattox, was sulking in the thunderous ovation rocking the Omni Center. With no official reason to be at the Omni, he had nevertheless cajoled state party officials into giving him a floor pass. Then he sat petulantly in the front row, glaring at delegates waving “Ann Richards” signs, applauding weakly, and sitting glumly through her best lines. He spent the next day telling interviewers that the speech had been okay but no big deal, a trifle that would be forgotten within weeks.

Mattox had good reason to be glum. Even before the applause died, a team of Richards organizers and fundraisers had swung into action to take advantage of the enthusiasm generated by her speech. Rushing from one television interview to the next, Richards waved to strangers shouting accolades from the hallways and balconies. She stopped to hug and kiss a dozen friends. “Thank yew. Thank yew soooo much,” she murmured as she offered her cheek for a peck and reached to pat another well-wisher on the back. Even ABC’s Ted Koppel was gushing. Her anonymity had evaporated into the steamy Georgia night. 

Sixteen hours before her big speech, at six in the morning on a Monday in mid-July, Ann Richards swept into the Atlanta Airport Marriott lobby on her way to a Today show interview with Jane Pauley. Chatting amiably with reporters from back home, she admitted nervousness about the keynote address: “I have the Chariots of Fire tape, and if I wake up with my stomach churning, I play that.” The nervousness wasn’t evident; she seemed oblivious to the klieg lights, mounted on a TV minicam, blazing in the predawn gloom. But Richards’ naturalness was being amplified and shaped by Democratic Pygmalions. Accompanying her was Lillian Brown, a Washington-based makeup and wardrobe consultant for scores of politicians who selected the classic turquoise Adele Simpson silk-blend Richards wore for the address. Richards’ only instruction was to choose an American designer.

Her main concern, Richards said, was how much her speech would differ from the eloquent epistle New York governor Mario Cuomo delivered four years ago. She fretted that media pundits would criticize her for not matching his cerebral style. Then she gave a revealing glimpse of herself, one that was not choreographed by Lillian Brown: “Let go, let God.”
The words are shorthand for one of the doctrines of Alcoholics Anonymous. Let go of life’s adversities; let God’s hand guide you. For all Richards’ wisecracking ways, there is a controlled side to her personality that Richards, a recovering alcoholic sober since 1980, reserves for herself. She repeatedly answers reporters’ questions about her political future by referring to the importance of living one day at a time– another part of the AA dictum.

After her Today show interview (“Isn’t Jane Pauley darling?” Richards observed), the rest of Monday was spent on practice and rest. Her four children– Cecile, 31 (mother of the now-famous granddaughter, Lily); Dan, 29; Clark, 26; and Ellen, 23– acted as their mother’s cheerleaders and protectors. During her midafternoon microphone and television check, as scores of technicians, guards, and reporters watched, Richards talked casually to Cecile a hundred yards away through the booming sound system as Richards’ likeness appeared on huge screens looming above the hall.

“How’s my makeup? Don’t be shy.” The technicians answered with catcalls and whistles, which Richards ignored. “Look at that, Cecile, look at that. I think it looks good,” she said, cocking her signature stiff white hairdo– an upswept pouf– to one side.

Cuomo visited her in a practice booth and presented her with a Steuben glass apple. Afterward, he predicted the Democratic party would have a new star by Tuesday morning.

Richards’ speech itself had several contributors. Richards consulted first with John Sherman, a Washington-based Democratic speechwriter who supplied key words and phrases. A team of Texans, including Jane Hickie and Mary Beth Rogers, Richards’ close friends and political advisers, honed the message for Richards’ chatty style and sharp wit. Austin public relations executive Neal Spelce, who also coached Cuomo before his 1984 speech, drilled Richards on her delivery and the use of high-tech TelePropTers. A few jokes were recycled from earlier speeches, such as “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did– she just did it backwards and in high heels.” But most of

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