There are a number of moments in the new documentary Ann Richards’ Texas that evoke the famous dictum: The more things change in American politics, the more they stay the same.
Early in the film, the directors, Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton, explore Richards’ 1990 race for Texas governor against the wealthy businessman Clayton Williams, who suffered a major public relations setback in his campaign after questions arose over how little he paid in federal income tax.
Patterson and Lofton also devote a considerable amount of screen time to Richards’ bruising and ultimately failed 1994 re-election campaign against George W. Bush. In the film, Richards was the left-leaning populist, and Bush was running against her on behalf of highly organized big business interests. While no explicit references are made to the upcoming November elections, the directors certainly do not deny such interpretations.
“You can’t help but look at some of the clips and some of the things that happened to Ann and draw direct parallels to President Obama,” Patterson said during an interview earlier this month. He added: “There’s this great American fight, between the haves and the have-nots, and I don’t think it will ever be over.”
Patterson and Lofton would seem to be unlikely biographers of Richards, who died of esophageal cancer in 2006, at 73. Patterson, 29, is from New York, where he majored in finance at Fordham University. Lofton, 31, spent a few years of his childhood in Dallas, but attended college and law school in Arkansas, where he is currently based. Patterson said they were attracted to her story, and particularly the significance of the 1994 Texas governor’s race, which fueled the political careers of George W. Bush and his chief campaign strategist Karl Rove. “That started setting off bells in my head of cause and effect,” Patterson said. “If she had won her re-election, I think our world would be totally different.”
The directors began working on the project in 2010, and were embraced by Richards’ wide network of friends and fans, in Texas and beyond. Among the A-listers featured in the documentary are Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Lily Tomlin, and Willie Nelson. Dolly Parton also appears and contributed music.
The film, which is in negotiations for release on a television network, had its world premiere at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, in June. It is next scheduled to be screened at the Dallas Video Festival in September and New York’s Paley Center for the Media in October.
In promoting Ann Richards’ Texas, the filmmakers are trying to walk a thin line. Patterson said he does not want the film to be regarded merely as a rallying cry for liberals in a contentious election cycle. “I don’t know how we can be dismissed as liberal propaganda when we’re talking about actual historical events,” he said.
But Curry Glassell, one of the film’s producers, said she hopes the documentary has an influence on voters. Glassell is a Houston-based philanthropist and businesswoman, who has so far this year donated more than $100,000 to Democrat fundraising organizations. She said she personally provided the majority of the financing for the documentary.
“This man is trying to create change and be a catalyst for something good and everybody is against him,” she said, comparing Obama to Richards.
Ann Richards’ Texas is not the only current Richards-related project in the works. In October, the University of Texas Press will publish Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, a biography by Jan Reid, who was good friends with the former governor. And “Ann,” a one-woman play about Richards, written by and starring Holland Taylor ( Two and a Half Men ), is moving to Broadway, after successful runs in Texas, Chicago and at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. According to Kevin Bailey, the show’s executive producer, “Ann” will debut next spring, bypassing election season. “We knew it could be construed as a partisan play, and that’s not what we wanted,” he said, of the decision on the timing for Broadway.
Some observers say the reason Richards is suddenly looming so large in the culture, nearly six years after her death, and almost two decades since her political career ended, may actually have more to do with personality than partisanship. Her straight-from-the-hip, larger-than-life style has proven increasingly difficult for politicians to replicate in an era of micro-targeting, super PACs and endless mudslinging.
“Ann seems like this throwback to a time when there were giants who walked the earth, when politicians were honest with us and told us the truth and got things done as a matter of principle,” said Wayne Slater, a political reporter for the Dallas Morning News and co-author of the book Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. “I think a lot of people wonder if we’ll ever see a person like that again.”