Considering the conservative mania that has defined the Texas political landscape for the last two decades, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when a Democrat—a female Democrat, no less—was governor of this bizarre state. For those not old enough to remember the great Ann Richards, even the possibility of her seems mythic—a bedtime story liberal parents tell their kids to give them some small shred of optimism in a seemingly hopeless world. Even in light of Wendy Davis’ current mini-insurgency, the idea of a progressive woman at the head of Texas state government feels like a fairy tale. Thank God then for All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, a new documentary about the whip-smart, acid-tongued former governor that premiered on HBO Monday night, and will screen again tonight, April 30, at 7 p.m. CST (and be available on HBOGo and OnDemand thereafter). The doc is here to remind us that it wasn’t all just a dream, that Ann Richards really happened, and that therefore, by inference at least, something decent could someday happen again in the halls of Texas Capitol.
Directed by Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper (capably, but with little of the flair, fire or charisma of their subject), All About Ann is the story of an iconoclast and an anomaly, a woman who refused to accept the world she’d inherited or her place in it. When Richards first started creeping onto the Texas political stage in the early 1970s, the state was a divided and exclusive place where white men and good old boys ran everything and women, African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities were ignored and/or relegated to second-class status. Before Richards was elected state treasurer in 1982, no woman had held statewide office in Texas for more than 50 years. And there have been precious few woman elected to statewide office since she left the governor’s mansion in 1994. Which makes Richards’ career essentially an era unto itself.
For one shining decade there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ann Richards dragged the state of Texas out of darkness into something approximating the 20th century. As state treasurer, she brought minorities and women onto her staff and opened up business possibilities for people who had the misfortune of not looking like the kind of people Texas had done business with or hired before. As governor, she quickly set about closing the influence gap between regular people and hired-gun lobbyists and promoting an ethos of inclusive government—a revolutionary idea in Texas back then (and, apparently, unfortunately, even now). She pushed for environmental accountability and better schools and drug treatment in prisons. She was a one-woman political movement, a force of nature bringing a taste of progressivism to a radically conservative state.
Richards’ time in the political sun, and the dream of political possibility and optimism that fueled it, were destroyed during her 1994 re-election campaign by the ultimate political cynic, Karl Rove, whose slanderous whisper campaign turned a popular sitting governor into an enemy of the state and basic human decency both. Such attacks would become the blueprint for George W. Bush’s march to the White House over the unfairly maligned reputations of John McCain, Al Gore and John Kerry. Still, the Richards legacy lives on—in expected places, like the campaign of Wendy Davis, who also made her name standing up for women against a paternalistic state government; and unexpected ones, like the meteoric rise and fall of Sarah Palin, who, despite her decidedly un-Richards-like political views, nevertheless came to national prominence in much the same way Richards had: by giving a star-making speech at a national convention that was equal parts biting and folksy.
What continues to fuel the Ann Richards legend eight years after she died of esophageal cancer is her charismatic stubbornness, her refusal to believe that the world she was born into was the world as it had to be. Watching All About Ann, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the defining trait of history’s most remarkable people is their belief that the world is there for the remaking, that there’s nothing that can’t be changed. Born a small-town girl in a man’s world, Ann Richards took the worst of what the white-male-conservative establishment threw at her (first exclusion, then dismissal, then vitriol, and finally slander) and kept knocking on the door until the door fell down. Despite the dire circumstances in which Texas finds itself today, we are living in a world that Ann Richards helped make, and if she were alive she’d doubtless be taking our heads off (with a joke and a smile) for allowing ourselves to despair over the current state of affairs. She was living proof that despair is a fool’s game, and that impossibility reigns only until the moment when someone comes along to turn it on its head. All About Ann is a reminder of that when we need it most.