Getting Serious

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

September 1988By and Comments

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 the speech came from Richards herself. She sat at a banquet table late Saturday, talking about the points she wanted to make as her advisers took notes.

A version of John Sherman’s suggestions for the speech had been fed into a computer, which unceremoniously ate it. So the notes of the Saturday evening session were typed into another computer during the predawn hours Sunday. Polishing the speech took the rest of the day. Single words were changed and then changed back again. The address required such artful attention because it was really three speeches in one: one to energize the arena in Atlanta, another to make points with the national television audience of millions, and a third to ignite her own gubernatorial campaign.

Richards had been selected for three reasons: She is a Texan, she is a woman, and she is funny. For years her extemporaneous speeches have left audiences breathless with laughter. Her gift is making people feel that they are sitting around her kitchen table, where she is letting them in on a private joke. With a raised eyebrow, a knowing smile, her face says, “And wait till you hear this.”

She has used this technique repeatedly in recent years at roasts of Washington celebrities, including one earlier this year for Democratic heavyweight Bob Strauss. At those events she caught the eye of Democratic kingmakers. This year they didn’t want the searing intensity of Mario Cuomo overshadowing the party’s nominee. They needed someone who could get the convention and the country to chortle and guffaw at the foibles of George Bush. But Democrats also risked turning off voters with mudslinging politics. Richards was the perfect solution. Only a woman– and a woman with a sense of humor– could make George Bush seem silly without making herself appear mean. 

But her Texas advisers worried that to achieve the effect in a giant convention hall would require such a “hot” delivery that she would seem phony on television. A narrow line had to be walked. In the end, with carefully choreographed gestures– such as looking directly into the camera at crucial moments– Richards carried it off. Some commentators made unflattering comparisons with Cuomo’s speech, but Richards did exactly what she was picked to do. As she told Ted Koppel afterward, “It was important for us to have a little fun with George tonight.”
By all appearances, Richards’ other purpose in Atlanta– launching her gubernatorial campaign– was a success as well. On Sunday night Richards appeared at a reception thrown by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a snazzy suburban club. Fort Worth businessman Marshall Brachman introduced her with a coy mention to the crowd about the “rumors” that she will run for governor of Texas. The morning following her speech, she rose after three hours of sleep to have breakfast with about forty business leaders invited by George Bristol, a longtime Lloyd Bentsen operative and veteran Democratic fundraiser. She made a cameo appearance at a brunch honoring Bentsen, then ducked out for a party at the Ritz-Carlton thrown by Bob Strauss.

Back in Texas, supporters gathered at more than two hundred watch parties to view the keynote address– and raise money. Two mornings after her speech, urgent “teleposts” arrived in the mailboxes of nearly 40,000 Democrats in Texas. The return address was “Ann Richards, Marriott Hotel, Atlanta, Georgia.” In the letter Richards said she was proud of her selection as the keynote speaker and predicted victory for the Democratic ticket. Then she got to the point: “Their victory will also set the stage for a new government in Texas in 1990. One we desperately need. And one we’re going to begin working for immediately.” Within two weeks the effort brought in $108,448 in cash and pledges of $8,472 each month. Only months before, Richards had said she had hoped to delay major fundraising efforts until after the 1988 election to avoid detracting from the Democrats’ presidential and senatorial campaigns. But the windfall of the keynote address was too great an opportunity to pass up, especially since Jim Mattox’s nonstop fundraising had threatened to give him an insurmountable advantage.

At political conventions, popularity registers on the extremes of the spectrum. At a downtown hotel Monday morning, Jesse Jackson emerged from an elevator, and the effect was that of a bomb going off in the lobby. Photographers leapt over furniture, reporters lunged, and network cables whipped through the air like deadly snakes. Five minutes later Gary Hart sauntered alone and unnoticed from the same elevator. People were embarrassed that he was crashing someone else’s party. At the convention Richards’ reception was more like Jackson’s, while Mattox’s was more like Hart’s.

At a party for Richards after the keynote, railroad commissioner John Sharp was ecstatic. “I was so damned proud of Ann I had tears in my eyes.” Then Mattox arrived. People ducked their heads or managed wan smiles.

On Tuesday afternoon Richards was mobbed outside the Ritz-Carlton as she arrived at a tea hosted by the 100 Women, a Houston-based group dedicated to increasing the role of women in political finance. Walter Cronkite joined the throng congratulating her. She got another standing ovation as she entered. She worked the crowd slowly, holding a friend’s face in her hands or gripping both shoulders or pulling an ear close for confidential talk.

As she returned to her hotel that afternoon, Richards said she would watch a videotape of her speech “to see what all the excitement’s about.” Though it projected her personality brilliantly, the speech itself cannot answer the most intriguing question about Ann Richards: Can she broaden her appeal enough to become Texas’ first woman governor in half a century?

She is certainly trying. Just as Michael Dukakis chose Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, Ann Richards has embraced the Bentsen wing of the Texas Democratic party, even tapping Bentsen confidant Jack Martin as her campaign treasurer. Already some members of Richards’ core constituency are uneasy. One Austin feminist even quibbled with her keynote speech, protesting that Richards had come off as a “clever grandmother,” belittling her own importance. In coming months other ideologues will be watching Richards closely for signs of compromise and tarnished principles. Whether they will go so far as to embrace Mattox or simply stay disgruntled remains to be seen.

Behind the scenes in Atlanta, every move Richards made seemed that of an ambitious and pragmatic politician. Even her comedy, once iconoclastic and even ribald, now is suitable for prime time and honed to a deadly edge. Jim Mattox’s nightmares must reverberate with an echo of her words in Atlanta: “Poor Jim,” she is saying. “He can’t help it. . . .”

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