A-men. A-women. A-Ann.

10 years difference, and Ann Richards could've been president
by Published on

Ann Richards shrugging, photo by Jana Birchum

Harry Porko first appeared in the lobby of some Wall Street firm—Smith, Merrill, Barney, & Asshole, I believe—where the treasurer of Texas had been left to cool her heels while waiting to sign a multibillion-dollar deal. Harry was the classic Texas sexist. He wore a rubber pig nose and waved a cigar while holding forth on the treatment of girls. “Now, my girls, I pay ‘em less than my men, but they don’t mind that. Because, first I give ‘em the uniform, the brown jumpsuit, and that’s special ’cause it’s got a yellow rose over the breast pocket. And then the hairnet, they love the hairnet.”

Ann Richards’ public life was mostly about gender. She was outrageous and courageous on behalf of women everywhere.

She was also a legendary campfire cook, a beautiful ballroom dancer (she did do everything Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels), she loved movies, was a bossy momma, just as good as at-the-moment quips as at telling great stories, a reluctant hunter (“first, you have to get up at four in the morning and dress from head to foot like a woody vine”), a great laugher, fine canoeist, former drunk, and first woman governor of Texas to get there on her own credentials.

In retrospect, it sounds almost easy. I believe if Ann had been born 10 years earlier or started 10 years later, she could have been president. But it’s easy to forget how firmly sexism ruled this culture.

Dorothy Ann Willis was born the only child of Cecil and Mildred Iona Willis in a small town near Waco, at the nadir of the Depression. Her daddy was a salesman, and her mother sewed all Ann’s clothes. She was encouraged to excel from the beginning. Her father always told her she could do anything she wanted. “I was in college before I found out he was wrong,” she said. Nevertheless, the gift of self-confidence was there. Ann graduated Waco High, where she was a debate star. She participated in Girls State, a leadership-training program, and was elected governor of Girls State.

Ann and Dave Richard with 2 other men, 1977, photo by Alan Pogue

She and Dave Richards dated in high school. She went to Baylor on a debate scholarship, and they married as undergraduates. She also got the world’s best mother-in-law, Eleanor Richards, who remains my definition of a classy lady. While David went to law school in Austin, Ann got a teaching certificate and taught junior high, a thankless assignment. But she had a real empathy for kids at that impossible age. As governor, she briefly took over a class of gifted and talented kids, mostly black and brown, who were visiting the Capitol for the day. They stood in a stairwell while the noise of the session swirled all around.

Ann and Dave Richard with 2 other men 1977, photo by Alan Pogue

“Who owns this building?” asked Ann.

“The taxpayers,” the kids finally concluded after much nudging.

“Who are the taxpayers?”

“My parents pay taxes!” shouted one kid.

“What about you? If you go to buy a candy bar, do you pay taxes on it?”

After much discussion, a candy-bar receipt was finally produced, and sure enough, it had tax added on it. “WE own the Capitol,” they all shouted. They won’t forget it, either. This took about 10 minutes out of her day and she must have done it hundreds of times.

When David was a young labor lawyer in Dallas, the great issue of the day was civil rights. To support Ralph Yarborough and the civil rights movement in those days in Dallas was pretty much tantamount to communism. But Ann and Betty McKool, wife of State Sen. Mike McKool and a great wit in her own right, used to make fun of the city and its bigots at the annual Democratic Women’s Club follies. Ann and Betty also sent out an anonymous annual Christmas card worth a good laugh. Given that she later went into politics, it’s just as well the cards never surfaced. One of Ann and Betty respectively dressed as the Virgin Mary and Joseph shows them astonished over a manger, yelling, “It’s a girl!” That seemed so subversive at the time, and I doubt the Christian Right would be amused by it today.

When Ann and Dave moved back to Austin in 1969, they became the center of a circle of friends, some of whom were later split up in the divorce. Every Friday night we gathered at Scholz Beer Garten for the weekly meeting of the Horses ASSociation. Sam Whitten and I agreed the best argument we ever heard at the ASSociation was between Martin Wigginton, a serious radical, and Fletcher Boone, who owned an art gallery, on the topic of does man live by bread alone? It was a 17–beer argument, with Wigginton for bread and Boone for roses, Marx and materialism versus the spirit and beauty, the two of them ringed by a group of hushed followers who turned their heads from one to the other as though they were watching a tennis match. Sam and I couldn’t decide who won. (Wigginton was later buried at his request without a headstone among the poor in Austin’s potter’s field.)

Mad Dog Inc., “Performing Ineffable Services for Mankind,” grew out of this rich soil, with Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright, two of the finest writers this state ever produced, at the center of much of this advanced form of mischief. (Well, who threw whom through the base drum at the nightclub in Mexico? It wasn’t Ann.) Ann and David had done politics since they were Young Democrats at UT. In those days women got to make Kleenex roses for the floats in various political parades.

Ann worked as Sarah Weddington’s campaign manager in Weddington’s first legislative race and then Ann ran for county commissioner in 1976, mostly because nobody else would. She loved to tell the story of how the guys at the equipment barn found this mangy ol’ hound and named it “Ann.”

In 1980, Ann’s family and a few friends arranged an intervention in her drinking, which was by then out of control. She was rather a mean drunk, given to saying unkind things about people, but she was also hilariously funny. I think she was the first woman I ever knew who talked about menopause in public, part of a very funny routine in questionable taste. She went to “drunk school” as Bullock called it, at St. Mary’s in Minnesota and never drank again. But she reacted badly to the intervention, holding a grudge over it for some time that included her children. Ann spent time in “the rooms” of Alcoholics Anonymous, crying on the sofa like everyone else who’s had the disease. She also had fantastically funny “drunkologue,” and was a wildly popular speaker at big conventions of people who work in the field of recovery. Over time, she must have handwritten hundreds of letters of encouragement to those of us trying to sober up. Although anonymity in AA is not to be broken even after death, the fact is Ann was a public ex-drunk. She was not only proud of what she had done, she helped untold numbers of others. She saved a lot of lives.

Ann Richards as State Treasurer, 1982, photo by Alan Pogue

When Ann first ran for statewide office in 1982, you could feel it: the start of a movement. Those women with big hair and big purses in Amarillo and Abilene flocked to hear her. She said that running the treasurer’s office was just like balancing a checkbook “except more zeroes.” That quaint simile is in fact true. “Women are trained to detail, and we are expected to juggle a lot of balls at once,” she would say. In fact, motherhood is splendid training for politics. All good mothers know what to do when there’s two kids and one cookie, and all good mothers know what to do when there are two kids in the back seat hitting each other, each one of them claiming the other one started it. All political problems are merely variations of those two situations.

Ann went around the treasurer’s office asking bureaucrats who had never been consulted before in their working lives how to make the place work better. At the end of a year, she had cut the time it took the state to process checks from a day and a half to an hour and a half, gaining $9 million a year in interest for Texas. By the end of her first year, the work force was 60 percent white, 18 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 59 percent female, including managers.

Her 1988 speech at the Democratic National Convention “made her a star overnight,” as they say. Ann had told me years earlier, “You always think Washington and New York are going to be so much harder. I mean, our friends here all think we’re wonderful, but they’re our friends, what do they know? Actually, if you can do it in Texas, you can do it anywhere.”

The famous line, “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” was contributed by Jane Wagner, who wrote Lily Tomlin’s hilarious one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Ann’s opponent in the 1990 election was not Claytie Williams but Jim Mattox, who was meaner and smarter. He finally dredged up some allegation about cocaine use, and Ann, according to her campaign manager Glenn Smith, was paralyzed by it. Among other things, she was just embarrassed to have her parents hear about it. So she wound up not commenting, which turned out to set the model for pols being asked about “youthful indiscretions.”

Ann Richards and her staff celebrating her Gubernatorial victory, 1990, photo by Alan Pogue

The fall campaign teeter-tottered along, a real nail-biter with Claytie Williams helping out several times. Ann was running for “a new Texas,” as vapid a slogan as has ever been dreamed up, and Claytie, with his good ol’ boy racism and sexism–he never meant to offend a soul–kept defining “old Texas” in the most helpful way.

Ann won on the women’s vote: She carried it by almost 60 percent, including suburban Republican women.

Her Inauguration Day was genuinely special—a crowd of Texans—white, black and brown—marched from the Colorado River bridge to the Capitol. Henry Cisneros was holding his little boy John Paul, and tears ran down Henry’s face as he watched her speak.

Ann inherited a huge mess as governor. The state’s economy was in the toilet—oil at $8 a barrel—and vast destruction left by the idiot follies of the S&L scandals. I don’t know that many of us who voted for her had expected Ann to spend most of her time helping General Motors, Apple Computer and other dispossessed citizens, but she was quite proud of steering those deals where the state gives a company tax breaks, free infrastructure, etc. The state’s economy did grow slightly faster than the national average in those years, but we had not thought she would be cutting tax deals with big corporations. The Observer was not ecstatic over her performance and, as I recall, rarely had much good to say about her. In the meantime, she also had to clean up the school funding mess and the prison mess (what good liberal builds 60,000 new prison cells?). She did put 14,000 beds into a prison alcohol rehab program. More than once she sat down with a circle of alcoholic convicts and said, “My name is Ann and I am an alcoholic.” (Bush later cut the program to 3,000 beds.)

Ann Richards swears in Glenn Maxey in 1992, photo by Alan Pogue

There was a split in the first term (actually dating to the campaign) between the “Austin white boys” and “the lesbians.” “The lesbians” (many of whom were not lesbian) felt that some of the white boys had sat around Austin on their fat asses drinking beer and shuld just step aside. The guys felt the bossy bitches shuld shut up. Despite some hard words, it was much ado about nothing: Glenn Smith always felt that it was a struggle over who was going to be closer to Ann. Political campaigns are a perfect hotbed for such rivalries, and when the candidate is as attractive a personality as Ann, the question of who gets to hang out with her can become quite fraught with emotion. I never thought she was well served by her top staff, except Mary Beth Rogers.

She was also bedeviled by Bob Bullock, who was jealous of her: He got pissed off because she hadn’t backed him when he took a stand in favor of a state income tax, a genuinely courageous move. When Bullock got pissed, as he not infrequently did, he was awful. In this case, he passed a constitutional amendment against the income tax out of pique. Ann disappointed many liberals, but then, she was elected governor of Texas, not Sweden.

Ann ran again after four exhausting years, and it was fairly apparent she didn’t really want to do it. She had been working flat-out for the entire term. Although few people knew it, Ann had a form of grand mal epilepsy that could result in seizures: It was dangerous for her to get extremely tired. Ann pushed herself so hard and what she really needed was someone to force her to stop at the end of the day. But she felt under such pressure to run again—all those people who believed in her, all those women who were inspired by her.

Ann Richards at her 60th Birthday celebration, photo by Alan Pogue

One thing Ann delivered on was opening government to all the people. Her record of naming blacks and Hispanics to state boards and commissions, of working them into the bureaucracy so they rise at their own pace, has not been equaled since?not that Bush or Perry tried much. It was wonderful to see her appointees standing in line to see her as she lay in state at the Capitol.

The ’94 race was the full tide of Republican reaction. Newt Gingrich & Co. had taken Congress two years earlier, and it was God, Gays and Guns. Naturally, rumors somehow spread about Ann and lesbians: She had appointed two openly gay people out of 800 or so appointments, but gay is gay. Ann had also said that if the Legislature passed a right-to-carry law, she would veto it. They did, and she did. The NRA put on a big push to convince her that we Texas women would feel ever so much safer if we could just carry guns in our purses. Ann said, when she issued her veto, “You know I am not a sexist, but there is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag.”

Had Ann been able to see just a little further into the future, she would have run like a racehorse. She really felt contempt for Bush and thought his ignorance and arrogance a dangerous combination. Depending on how liberal you are (and this magazine is lily-pure), you could also get mad about Ann’s lobbying career once she left office. When she was with the law firm of Verner, Lipfert, she actually lobbied for the tobacco companies. When I talked to her, it seemed to me more of a case of Ann getting paid for her political judgment, and she was right on every call she made. She told me the Senate had made a mistake by holding out for better than the attorneys’ general agreement with the tobacco companies, and she was right.

I’m glad she got to make money and take the grandkids on cruises and the girls down the Grand Canyon and all that good stuff. The most touching moment at a smaller service for Ann came from Bud Shrake, known as Ann’s “walker” when she was governor. Shrake is not likely to spill sticky sentiment across an occasion. He said simply, “She was the center of my life for 17 years. I loved her. A-men. A-women. A-Ann.”

Ann Richards, photo by Jana Birchum

I think what she said most often in her life was, “Idn’t it wonde
ful?”

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her most recent book with Lou Dubose is Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House).

Furthermore…

We have posted a partial transcript and videos from the speech Ann gave at the Observer’s 50th Anniversary Gala in 2004.

  • http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/ Ed Darrell

    Surely this has gone through several internet editions, with comments getting lost.

    What a wonderful story, and what a wonderful telling.

    THIS piece should be required reading in Texas classrooms — tough to say it should be required of 7th grade Texas history students, but they might get it — especially government and U.S. history, and maybe economics and personal hygiene.

    Where is the SBOE when you need a moment of sane wildness from them?