The fire marshal must have been on vacation the day that Ann Richards dedicated the José Escondón Elementary School in the La Joya Independent School District. Every available square inch in the cafeteria was occupied. Schoolchildren on their best behavior sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a curtainless stage. Their families—not just parents and siblings but aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins—sat in row after row of folding chairs, until the chairs ran out, and then they stood three-deep along the cinder block walls, and then they jammed into the open doorways and spilled out into the school yard, straining for a glimpse of the governor. Most of the men wore suits and ties; women were in dresses and heels. The Saturday afternoon ceremony in late February was a big occasion in this westernmost outpost of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
It should have been a big occasion for Ann Richards as well. She has done more for South Texas than any other governor: lobbied for NAFTA, named a highway commissioner from this oft-neglected region, provided relief for residents of colonias that lacked running water, successfully advocated a plan to immunize children against disease. The mostly Hispanic crowd represented an important part of her political base: hardworking, struggling families who care about their kids and worry about the future. Here was a chance for Richards to generate momentum for the difficult election campaign that lay ahead.
But she didn’t take advantage of it. Right from the start, she seemed down in the dumps as she addressed state lawmakers in the audience: “As legislators, you start out full of ambition and hope to go to Austin and do what you want to do, only to have your hopes dashed because this is a democracy and someone else has a vote equal to yours.” Although the governor looked resplendent in a pink jacket and a black skirt, her performance was listless and utterly mystifying. Even the trademark silver hair looked less poufed than usual. She missed a chance to connect with the crowd when she said to Congressman Kika de la Garza, “I’m going to be up there soon and talk to those boys you work with, and those girls too, about the help we need with”—guess what? Not any of a dozen things the Valley desperately needs, from infrastructure improvements to environmental cleanups. No, it was—“that superconducting supercollider.” A dead project hundreds of miles away.
And so it went, one melancholy note after another. “If you see someone in law enforcement or education,” she said, “please thank them, because they will never get enough money to do what they need to do.” Instead of talking about all she had done for South Texas, she seemed almost apologetic when she told the schoolchildren,” Your parents pay taxes, and in this school district they pay very high taxes because of the way the school-finance formula works.”
Ann Richards’ popularity remains high. Her lead over George W. Bush holds steady in the polls. But inside, something has changed. She has lost the exuberance of her first months in office. During her speech, Richards made a modest promise or two, the audience clapped politely at several points, and a couple of jokes elicited light ripples of laughter. But she never really roused the crowd or herself. Who would have thought than Ann Richards, the first Texas governor to come up through the liberal wing of the Democratic party, would go to La Joya to deliver a speech that seemed to say, “Ask not what your government can do for you, because it can’t do very much”?
If the speech in La Joya had been an isolated incident, her mood could be explained by the cough that troubled her frequently during the speech or by the recent death of her father. But it was not just an isolated incident. A message of dismay with government has been popping up in Richards’ speeches and private conversations for more than a year. It has been so persistent that some of her close friends were not sure that she would run for reelection—or that she should. Last year, in a speech at the University of Texas introducing Hillary Rodham Clinton, Richards talked about how people expected too much from government. It was a strange prelude to the first lady’s pitch for a government program of universal health care. At a meeting of people Richards had just appointed to state boards and commissions, she told them how disenchanted she had been with some of her initial appointees. Near the end of the 1993 legislative session, I saw her in the halls of the Capitol and mentioned to her that she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself the way that she did during the 1991 session that followed her election. Her response was: “If you mean, ‘Am I sadder but wiser?’ the answer is yes.”
What happened between the time that she took office determined to change government and the time that she became disillusioned? By ordinary political standards, she has had the most successful tenure of any Texas governor since John Connally—a long list of legislative achievements, a revitalized state economy, national stardom, continuing popularity at home—and yet at times she seems to draw little solace from it. Ever the perfectionist, she is haunted by her failures rather than invigorated by her accomplishments. “She has that old Methodist social conscience,” says her former chief of staff, Mary Beth Rogers. “You think it’s your responsibility to do everything.” When Richards was state treasurer, she could easily fix the simple problems she came across. Now, as governor, she can’t. The problems aren’t so simple.
“Someone sent me a newspaper from Ma Ferguson’s time,” Richards told me during an interview in her office. “Do you know what the issues were? Schools, prisons, and insurance. It doesn’t change much, does it?”
But the difficulty of making government work might be only one explanation of why Richards has grown sadder but wiser.