In the first half of 1992, Ross Perot was not the only Texas figure to blossom as a presidential possibility. Ann Richards hit the big time too. After her joke-a-minute speech last January to about two hundred congressional Democrats and their staffers at a retreat in the piney woods of Maryland, many in the crowd rose to their feet, waving napkins and chanting, “We want Ann” and “Ann for president.” The speech, carried live on C-SPAN, so entranced comedian Bill Cosby that he telephoned Richards from Hollywood and urged her to seek the White House. Closer to home, a trendy Austin bookstore made up its own black-and-white “Ann for President” bumper stickers; they quickly sold out.

The movement was no surprise to Ellen Malcolm, the founder and president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates. She said, “I’ve got my heart set on Ann Richards’ running for president.” Richards lightheartedly alluded to the possibility herself during a March speech to the Gridiron Club in Washington. Richards told the crowd of journalists and politicians that the voters of America are looking for someone strong, someone who is solid, someone who won’t bend. Then came the punch line: “Like my hair.”

It’s no secret that most Democratic insiders (and, for that matter, most Democratic voters) are dissatisfied with 1992 presidential nominee-to-be Bill Clinton. Even in the middle of the current presidential race, the pros are already thinking about the next one. “There is absolutely no reason Ann Richards couldn’t be president,” said Washington-based Bob Squier, a well-known Democratic political consultant. If Clinton loses this year, many of the current cast of characters (Lloyd Bentsen, Mario Cuomo, Sam Nunn) will be past their peak in 1996, and the party will be desperate for new faces. One prospect is West Virginia governor Jay Rockefeller; others, not quite so new, are senators Bill Bradley and Al Gore; another is Richards.

She has the same kind of reformer appeal that Ross Perot has, combined with a twenty-year record in government. “Ann Richards is the metaphor for change that people are asking for this year,” said Squier. “This is a woman who knows no limits.” Some of Squier’s enthusiasm can be attributed to his role in designing Richards’ media strategy in the 1990 governor’s race. Still, Richards has come a long way since that desultory campaign, when her support from voters fell below 30 percent. When she faced questions about whether she had used illegal drugs, even the people closest to her thought she appeared lost and confused. Now, at a time of high anti-incumbent sentiment, Richards’ monthly approval ratings vary between 55 and 70 percent in Texas, and she’s hot, hot, hot nationally. One moment she’s fielding adoring softball questions from 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer. The next she’s staging surprise midnight raids on filthy nursing homes. There she is, having a heart-to-heart lunch with Bill Moyers; there she is, yukking it up with the press on her custom-made Harley.

Is America ready to elect a woman president? And will Ann Richards be the woman? I asked Richards herself. “I just don’t see it. I don’t feel it,” she said, over a lunch of seafood gumbo and cornbread at the Governor’s Mansion. “I really do live my life one day at a time.” But then she launched into a speech about the economy and why Americans are so disillusioned with politics, starting, as she frequently does, with a personal observation. “The thing I wish I had taught my children that I didn’t is that life is hard,” she said. (To Richards, politics is personal, something that ought to matter to ordinary people, and the things that are the most personal—kids, jobs, health—are also the most political.) “In Texas we got the message in the early eighties, when the federal government not only allowed the market to be ooded with cheap foreign oil but then sent the Navy out to escort tankers from the Middle East,” she said. “Now everyone is getting it—kids with master’s degrees can’t get jobs, couples can’t get loans or refinance houses that are worth half of what they paid for them. The whole country is undergoing perilous and massive economic changes.”

Suddenly Richards stopped herself in mid-delivery, realizing that she sounded exactly like what she was trying not to sound like: a candidate for national political office. “I’m minding the kitchen here in Texas,” said Richards, uncharacteristically squirming, “but I can’t help noticing the obvious: The nation’s ox is in a ditch.”

When Ann Richards addressed this year’s graduating class of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, she described how much politics had changed for women in her lifetime. “Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was your age, politics was a male province,” Richards told the all-female graduates. “Women made the coffee, and men made the decisions.”

No more. This, after all, is 1992, the year political pundits have dubbed the Year of the Woman. With dozens of members of Congress retiring in frustration or disgrace, it is women who are rushing to take their place. Currently, 166 women are running for Congress. California Democrats nominated two women to run for Senate seats: former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein and U.S. representative Barbara Boxer. Two other women candidates for the Senate—Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois and Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania—won unexpected primary victories, largely on the strength of a single TV image: Anita Hill, a lone black woman, sitting at a table, looking up at fourteen skeptical white male senators. “Does this make you as angry as it makes me?” asked Yeakel in her TV spots.

But voters regard presidential campaigns as being different from gubernatorial and congressional races. To ask whether America could elect a woman president might sound condescending to some and radical to others, but American political history is replete with examples of variations on that kind of question. When John Kennedy ran in 1960, the issue was whether America was ready for a Catholic president. When Lyndon Johnson ran that same year, the issue was whether America was ready for a Southerner. Richards would not be the first woman to seek the presidency; that footnote belongs to Shirley Chisholm, the black New York congresswoman whose presidential quest in 1972 was viewed as so quixotic that the possibility of a woman president was never seriously considered. Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, was another long shot, as was Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder in 1988. Richards, however, is in an entirely different category. She is the governor of the third most-populous state and already a national figure in her own right.

The current hunger for change helps Richards. One theory is that maybe a woman president would be inclusive rather than divisive—kinder and gentler, if you will. A woman might benefit as well from the voter rebellion inspired by Ross Perot. “What Perot is saying now helps Ann in 1996,” said Roy Spence, the president of GSD&M advertising agency in Austin and a strong supporter of both Clinton and Richards. “They’re both talking about change, and they both see themselves as outsiders.” Richards told the Smith College graduates that because women have been on the sidelines of politics for so long, they aren’t as invested in the status quo. In meetings with her staff or recalcitrant state bureaucrats, she has little patience with the argument that things have always been done a certain way. The question she asks—“Can we do this a new and better way?”—is the same question Perot is asking of Washington.

Her popularity is rooted not in her accomplishments as governor (her legislative agenda has been limited to a few high-profile issues, such as the lottery and taking on insurance compa-nies and polluters) but in her style and the specifics of who she is: a 58-year-old woman, a mother, a former schoolteacher, a former county commissioner, and a survivor of divorce and alcoholism. Richards has evolved into a matriarchal figure—a powerful woman, to be sure, but one whose power seems to be more collegial than controlling. She is the modern incarnation of the tough prairie earth mother. Her style is as effective with hard-bitten inside-the-Capitol types as it is with the public at large. “One night she called a group of us over to the mansion,” recalled a business lobbyist, “served us piping-hot cornbread, and talked to us like family for a couple of hours about school finance. I don’t always agree with her, but she reminds me of the way everybody in rural Texas used to be. They worked harder and produced more than anybody else.”

To understand Richards’ style, you have to start with her hair. You know Richards is a star because of the way people react when she walks into a room. They turn and stare … at her hair. They sometimes gasp for breath, point, and giggle. It is hard and white and high, and at first glance it looks hilariously bouffant—swept off her face in a helmet of silver coils. But as Richards’ popularity has grown, her hair has come to be a symbol for her political personality: solid, serious, stable, and reassuring, because it doesn’t change with the times. Although Republican critics like the party’s state chairman, Fred Meyer, keep trying to portray her as a shrill feminist liberal, they can’t quite keep her in that ideological box because her hairstyle—washed, curled, teased, and sprayed—is straight out of the fifties, the last era of good feeling in America. Her hair makes her a permanent member of the carhop generation, a throwback to small-town values, which is why she appeals to both men and women.

So does her sense of humor. Richards stands out because she’s one of the few politicians around who can make us laugh at ourselves. Remember the joke that made her famous? “Poor George,” she said in her 1988 Democratic convention speech, “he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Even though her joke stung, it wasn’t mean-spirited, and after the election Bush even gave her a pin of a silver foot. Four years later, her sense of humor seems almost nostalgic compared with today’s po-litical campaigns, which start in the gutter and get worse. But Richards continues to poke fun—and poke it at everyone. In her speech to congressional Democrats, she skewered George Bush’s economic recovery plan (“a Brylcreem agenda—a little dab’ll do ya”), but she didn’t let the Democrats off the hook either. She chastised them for clinging to the status quo and for refusing to talk about serious issues in plain and simple language. “Tell it so my 83-year-old mama in Waco can understand it,” she lectured. When she addressed the Gridiron Club, she took one look at the black-tie crowd of Washington insiders and said, “So this is what y’all do up here on Saturday nights. I don’t know whyyyyy anyone would think you’re out of touch.” It was the kind of snappy populist line Perot could have used—except it would have seemed mean if he had said it. For all his popularity, Perot can be an ice-water-in-the-veins sort of guy. The only thing frozen about Richards is her hair.

But Richards can be tough too. “She can play hardball with the best of ’em,” said one male business lobbyist, who described an evening during the legislative session when Richards asked business lobbyists straight out if they were trying to kill her hazardous waste bill. “Oh, no,” said the lobbyists, forced to backpedal. “You boys get out of here,” Richards told them. “We’re gonna write this bill, and if you stay, you’re gonna make an enemy out of me. Believe me, you don’t want to do that.” They left.

Richards does not hesitate to use the prestige of her office—she knows how legislators crave an invitation to the mansion for lunch—but unlike her immediate predecessors, Bill Clements and Mark White, she doesn’t get caught up in ceremonial trappings. She is as likely to serve cornbread or coffee herself as to ask a servant to do it. “I view being governor as a job, not an office,” she says vehemently. But her style isn’t gooey or sentimental. It’s hard to imagine Ann Richards drawing happy faces beside her autograph, as is the custom of Pat Schroeder.

The result is she has managed to serve almost a year and a half without accumulating any serious political liabilities or resolute enemies. She even appeals to many Republicans, especially those who favor abortion rights. Last winter a small group of eight wealthy Texans gathered for a dinner party in an exclusive neighborhood in Palm Springs, California. All had voted for Clayton Williams for governor in 1990. When the conversation turned to the 1996 presidential race, everyone at the table said that if Richards is a candidate, they will vote for her.

Besides such bipartisan support, she enjoys immunity in the various political wars within her own gender as well. Both sides in the war between working women and homemakers use her as proof that their particular choice is the right one. Full-time homemakers like her because when Richards’ four children were young, she stayed home with her kids and cleaned, sewed, and cooked. Mothers with full-time jobs see Richards as an advocate and role model, someone who started out a schoolteacher and inched her way forward. A few days after Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate defense of her own legal career—“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas”—Richards met with statewide editorial writers in her office. As she personally poured the coffee and served the fresh-baked cookies, the comparison between her and Hillary Clinton was stark: In Richards’ hands, cookies were proof of self-assurance.

Richards has managed to avoid the clichés that are constantly applied to women politicians, even by themselves. When USA Today surveyed the 31 female members of Congress on differences between women and men in Congress, some of the answers were downright hackneyed. “Women will work harder for peace,” said Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, adding, “Women think horizontally. Men think vertically.” This is another version of the old saw that women are more intuitive and men are more logical, a stereotype that manages to insult both genders. Others said women care more and work harder, especially about family issues. Constance Morella, a Republican from Maryland, blatantly claimed intellectual superiority: “I think women understand all issues, certainly most issues, better than men.”

Richards would never say anything that impolitic. The one stereotype that might apply to her is that she has been more inclusive than the males who preceded her. More than half of Richards appointments have been women and minorities, and she has also avoided alienating potentially hostile groups, such as Republicans and men. Whatever she may believe privately about the differences between male and female politicians, she doesn’t say anything publicly that might create a gender gap for herself. In explaining to the Smith College graduates how being a woman affects her politically, Richards ventured only as far as the safe ground that women bring a different kind of experience to the table. “When I am part of a meeting and the subject is comparable worth or local government or the public schools,” she said, “the nature of the discussion changes because I am a woman, a former county commissioner, a former schoolteacher… . When you add someone whose understanding is not merely intellectual but instinctive, the whole equation changes.”

“I’m doing what I said I’d do for Texas,” Richards said during our interview, “and I’m finding the bitter reality: Change is hard to bring about.” She was acknowledging her biggest problem—translating her popularity into concrete achievements.

If you strip away Richards’ symbolic importance from her first year in office, the specifics of what you have left are one policy victory (she got the lottery passed), one sweeping bureaucratic insurrection (she was able to take control of the agencies regulating insurance, water quality, and public utilities, mainly by forcing the resignations of Bill Clements’ appointees), and one clever political strategy (selecting issues—insurance reform and environmental regulation—that require no new spending and are popular with Republicans as well as Democrats). But perhaps her greatest success is what did not happen: She did not get blamed for the Legislature’s failure to solve the school-finance mess or to avoid a tax bill.

Politicians have to appeal to two divergent audiences—the pros who operate inside the Capitol (or in Washington, the Beltway) and the public. Richards is the first Texas governor since John Connally to please both constituencies. I asked Connally why he thinks Richards is so well liked. “She reflects a candor, a frankness that people find appealing,” said Connally, “plus she’s found the right combination for these times—she functions like an insider but talks like an outsider.”

Not all the insiders are so charmed, of course, but the main criticisms one hears are of her staff rather than of Richards. The staff is universally regarded as too ideological and not very knowledgeable on the issues. Yet the criticism has not seemed to rub off on Richards, who, after all, hired them and keeps them on. The school-finance issue is a clear example of staff shortcomings. Last year Richards was criticized for not having a plan. This year she offered a general plan to eliminate the difference between rich and poor school districts: Change the property tax on business from local to statewide so that every district in the state could share in tax revenues from oil and gas wells, nuclear power plants, shopping malls, and other businesses. Her proposal never even made it out of the starting gate. No one knew exactly how the business tax would be set, how appraisals of property—which now vary 30 to 40 percent from county to county—would be made uniform, how local school districts would handle new and old debt, or endless other specifics. Richards herself acknowledged that the plan lacked details. “I wish I could tell you that we have dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in this plan,” she told the board of directors of the Texas Chamber of Commerce in early April, “but as Richard Nixon said twenty years ago, that would be wrong.”

It was a good line—but bad politics. Richards tried to drum up enough support for her plan to call a special session in May, but in the end not a single senator could be identified as a sure yes vote. Plans for a special session were dropped. “It was another example of her staff doing her in,” said one business lobbyist. “Here was the governor being moderate, reasonable, philosophically correct, but completely undermined by a staff that hadn’t done its homework.” Often the criticism is directed by males at the women who dominate the governor’s inner circle (with the exception of chief of staff Mary Beth Rogers). “There’s nothing wrong with the governor’s office,” said one critic, “that a rash of pregnancies wouldn’t fix.”

In fact, most of the substantive work of the Richards administration has occurred in the hidden world of the state bureaucracy. At the State Board of Insurance, Richards’ appointees have forced companies to provide a toll-free number for complaints in both English and Spanish, they’ve required auto insurers to allow customers to make monthly payments on some policies, and they’ve instituted rules that prevent insurers from not renewing policies because of claims that people have no control over—such as hail damage to cars. Insurance officials—who aren’t about to be quoted by name—say that her appointees are hopelessly one-sided (board member Allene Evans, for instance, was formerly the chief of the antitrust division in the attorney general’s office and was lead counsel in a massive lawsuit filed against eight of the largest insurance companies doing business in Texas). However, Richards had successfully concluded during her campaign that Texans feel no pity for insurance companies. She has the mandate to go after them, and she’s doing it. The jury is still out whether the actions of her board will result in lower rates.

Just as she has been able to insulate herself from the criticisms of her staff, she has so far been able to escape personal criticism for the actions of her appointees. Not that Meyer, the Republican party state chairman, hasn’t tried. “There is nobody more partisan than Ann Richards,” Meyer said. “She has driven all these people out of state agencies and replaced them with her own cronies.” But the criticism hasn’t stuck. Aside from one story about turnover at the insurance board, the bureaucracy remains impenetrable, and Richards’ team is so loyal that leaks to the Capitol press corps are almost nonexistent.

The main pitfalls ahead are the school-finance morass and the 1993 legislative session, which will find state government facing yet another shortfall, this time estimated at $6 billion. Court orders and congressional mandates requiring more public money for schools, Medicaid, prisons, and mental health facilities cannot be ignored. It will become increasingly more difficult for Richards to avoid a major tax bill.

Another problem for Richards is whether she can continue to perform a balancing act between the interests of environmentalists and those of business. That battle, which is now hidden from public view, will eventually surface as state regulatory agencies continue to make sweeping changes affecting powerful industries. Still, as Richards has proved, she doesn’t have to pass a lot of bills to keep her Texas family happy. If she can continue to attack popular targets, hold a tax increase within court mandates, and maintain her role as political symbol, she’ll be a strong favorite to win reelection in 1994.

After that the question is: What kind of damage can the character cops do to a Richards presidential campaign? Her divorce probably wouldn’t be a factor; David Richards, her ex-husband, remains a political ally, and besides, America has already had one divorced president. During the 1990 Democratic primary, supporters of Jim Mattox tried to make an issue of the fact that Richards is often in the company of gay women—with little effect, since Richards has four grandchildren and is often in the company of writer Bud Shrake as well. The issue of possible drug use will inevitably be raised again and probably pressed harder. The answer that she gave in 1990—that she wouldn’t answer questions about drug use because it might affect other people’s ability to get over their addiction—won’t be accepted by the national media. Yet Richards has been able to make her status as a recovering alcoholic into a strength. Her membership in Alcoholics Anonymous ties her to the millions of people in twelve-step personal recovery programs. As advertising executive Roy Spence put it: “The essential truth about Ann Richards is that she has been through the fire and the fire lost.” She just may climb those twelve steps all the way to the White House.

“I find I get into sloppy habits when I start thinking months and years in advance,” Richards said near the end of our lunch. For now, her public posture continues to be that she is not thinking about the presidency, even as she privately positions herself for a possible run. When Richards paused, I asked her if she honestly thought Bill Clinton or George Bush or anyone else on the horizon would make a better president than she would.

“No,” she said finally, “I can’t say that I do.”