Riding shotgun in a mammoth Suburban barreling from Port Arthur to Beaumont, the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas is putting on her face. Balancing a compact on one knee, splaying a lipstick between two taut fingers like a smokeless stogie, Ann Richards retouches while she gets the drill from her entourage – two trial lawyers, a football coach, her son Dan, a press aide. It is late afternoon, and she is heading for a meeting with black supporters. “He’ll be the biggest contributor there?” she asks of one name on the invitation list, as she fixes a line under her eyes. “Do you know what he does for a living?” she asks of another, sketching in her mouth with a red pencil.
It has been an antic East Texas summer day, just a shade out of kilter, and the candidate looks tired. Coffee with the boys before a Rotary luncheon speech in Beaumont was interrupted by an eccentric local woman who fluttered around Richards like an anxious moth. Then the Rotary speech got off to a slow start because each visitor – and there were many – was required to stand and be greeted by the eerie, high pitched whistles of the members. Richards’ appearance had a dissonance of its own – something about the bold red suit and yellow blouse, the spectacular snowy-white hair, and the weathered face that could belong to a rancher’s widow seemed out of place in this baroque part of Texas, where things tend to be intricate and obscure. She seemed a bit stiff, and her fabled humor wasn’t coming across. A mildly off-color joke seemed indelicate, and her message of a New Texas – which includes “buying,” “building,” and “selling” everything from mohair to pasta manufacturing plants to supercolliders – did not galvanize this Golden Triangle group. The Beaumont Rotary listened politely to Ann Richards, but the Beaumont Rotary was unmoved.
Later, she blossomed before her truest believers at the opening of a new headquarters in a sun-bleached strip shopping center in Nederland. This was a picture-perfect Democratic crowd – working-class blacks and Hispanics, single mothers with small children, thick young women in T-shirts, and grizzled union men who have toiled far too long in petrochemical plants. When Ann Richards pulled into the parking lot, it was hard to tell who needed whom more, whether she had jumped from the Suburban or had been pulled from it by the adoring surge. “HaharyewDarlin!Haharyew!” she would say, and the disappointment of the morning faded away.
Now, heading back to Beaumont, she must keep up a good front. But the face beneath her freshly applied mask belongs not to the easygoing, irreverent Ann Richards of Austin mythology but to the embattled Ann Richards of post-primary, post- Jim Mattox reality. Behind the shadow and liner, her clear blue eyes are pained and angry, bearing a look that is at once assessing, impatient, and pleading. She snaps her compact shut and grimaces. “Okay,” she says, “I’ve painted on everything I’ve got in my purse.”
The briefing begins again – who’s who, who hasn’t given what. On a portable phone, the coach plans her entrance to the evening’s fish fry. “Man, don’t they love those portable telephones,” Richards cracks. “It’s just like playing army.” One of the lawyers reminds her to get the names right. “You’ll be lucky if I remember your first name,” she shoots back. Then she turns toward the window and the scraggly pines along the highway.
“I tell you, it’s terrible to have a reputation for being perfect,” Ann Richards says before adding, almost to herself, “ ‘cause when you fail …” For a long minute, silence overtakes the Suburban, and the only sound is that of the wheels grabbing the asphalt and pushing on, regardless.
Failure and perfection have rarely been so perilously linked in the life of Ann Richards, 57, as they are now. Invincible just nine short months ago, her foundering campaign is the great mystery of this political season. This is, after all, Ann Richards, whose friends are incapable of describing her without using the word “perfect.” Ann Richards, who gets pretty near straight A’s for her terms as Travis Country commissioner and state treasurer. Ann Richards, whose keynote speech made her the darling of the 1988 Democratic National Convention and who, in last spring’s primary, trounced Jim Mattox, the proverbial meanest mother of Texas politics. And yet, it is this Ann Richards who, by late summer, could not get out from under what Austin pundits called “the negatives” – the damage done by Mattox, who fixed Richards in the minds of many voters as a divorced, dope-smoking liberal with a rabid lesbian following. It is this Ann Richards who finds herself struggling to raise money, suffering from hostile relations with a once-friendly press, searching for a strategy, and worst of all, trailing in the polls behind Clayton Williams, a candidate who only last year was seen as nothing more than a rich clown in a cowboy hat. Even among her loyal followers, the question is raised tentatively but persistently: “Why can’t Ann Richards give me a reason to vote for her?”
A blue-black blanket has settled over the East Texas sky by the time Richards arrives at the fish fry to speak before about one thousand members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union. Southeast Texas is due its slice of the economic pie, she tells this cheering crowd, which during the primary belonged to Mattox. After the speech, Richards works the line of hungry diners, standing a little closer than most people would dare, her fingers tapping a forearm here, her eyes scanning a face there like a lover searching for the once acceptable truth. In this hard-times crowd, people seem both drawn to and dizzied by the buffed and polished Richards. Each time she stops to press the flash, someone seems to have a camera ready. A minuet ensues: Richards steps forward, and though she is