The Last Liberal

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

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

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