In his biography of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, “Let the People In,” Jan Reid brings the reader into a world that in 2014 seems almost mythical.
It’s a world of hell-raisers and smart mouthed idealists. Pot-smoking and satire. It’s Texas politics in the days of Ann Richards. Quite frankly, if I hadn’t seen her walking the halls of the Capitol with my own little third grade eyes, it would be hard to believe she existed. How such an outspoken and complex person, (and a Democrat at that!), worked her way up the political ladder is a tale that only someone who really knew Richards could tell.
Reid is that person, offering ample insight into the host of characters on the political and social stage, as well as Ann Richards the woman. From improbable housewife to darling of the national Democratic party, Richards’ story and her principles remind us that maybe there is room for the “everyman” in politics.
RR: To people coming of voting age in the 21st century, Ann Richards and the Texas Democrats of the ’70s and ’80s seem like a completely different breed of politician. They were not the scrubbed clean, lifetime campaigners we are accustomed to. When did these types disappear from elected office? Or did they?
JR: I wouldn’t say Ann was the last candidate of personal flamboyance and recklessness to succeed. Bill Clinton got away with a great deal as president. Have you read the book or seen the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War?” Charlie was a dedicated rascal in his personal life and an important member of Congress; could someone like him be elected today from Lufkin? It’s hard to imagine.
The rise and power of the Christian right, its ideologically aligned Tea Party, and the scolds of talk radio have driven many possible candidates into other walks of life. And the press, with its belief that gotcha journalism is the sport played by Woodward and Bernstein, has helped drain the political talent pool. It’s also been accentuated by the growing role of consultants who throw their support behind candidates who are squeaky clean in every detail and are very, very careful.
RR: You quote Gov. Richards as saying that if she had known she would lose her bid for re-election, she would have “raised a little more hell.” Her “hell raising” style certainly made her fun to read about. And you seem to have enjoyed knowing her socially as well. Is there a part of you that wishes she had played the political game a little better and been able to stay in office?
JR: Sure. She might have delivered on more of her promise in policy realms like public school finance and reversal of our state’s woeful enforcement of environmental safeguards. Much of her downfall in the second half of her term amounted to plain bad luck in the form of failures by trusted associates and heels-dug-in obstruction in the Legislature. And one important time when she refused to budge on principle — her disdain for the Texan craze for going armed in public — the NRA turned that on her and enthusiastically helped elect George W. Bush. The end of her political story is filled with what-if’s. What if she hadn’t run in 1994? What if she had won that race? What if Bush had gotten his wish at the outset and been appointed Major League Baseball Commissioner?
RR: Looking at the political landscape of Texas for the last 20 years, what do you feel we have retained of Gov. Richards’ legacy? What about on the national stage?
JR: Her primary legacy was ending the days when Texas government was an old white boys club. She appointed women, blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians to positions of power and policy-making. And the agencies that keep the state government running are still staffed that way, though in policies and priorities they’re light years away from a governor who took office as an unapologetic liberal. The second part of her legacy is that many of the cracks in the glass ceiling that we hear about were put there by Ann. She was the first ardent feminist to win high office in a major populous state. Hillary Clinton considered Ann her mentor when she was First Lady and then U.S. senator from New York. And in the surge of women governors of both parties that followed, Ann had more in common with young Sarah Palin, as Alaska’s governor, than one might think.
RR: In the book, you don’t make much comment on Gov. Richards post-gubernatorial career. What do you make of her forays into the “revolving door” between politics and lobbying in Washington? Knowing her personally, do you feel that politics took a toll on her ideals?
JR: My one regret about the book is that I was unable to do more with her post-gubernatorial years. The reasons were simple — out of time, money, and acceptable page length. Ann was scorched for selling out to “Big Tobacco”, but there were two sides to that story. U.S. senators as respected as Maine’s George Mitchell and Tennessee’s Howard Baker with that same firm lobbied Congress to accept the terms of a multi-billion dollar settlement achieved by state attorneys general; Congress had not been disposed to do anything to curb youthful smoking or exports of American cigarettes abroad. Ann’s lobbying for a development of New Jersey wetlands that she knew next to nothing about is harder to defend. But she didn’t work as a lobbyist long. She was much happier when she left Washington and Austin for New York after 9/11, where she worked for a public relations firm and developed interest in the concept of magnet public schools for girls of promise, which led to one named after her in Austin. And New Yorkers loved her. Celebrity, not avarice, was her luxury in her last years.
RR: With Wendy Davis making a run for governor of Texas, the bold Texas female Democrat seems to be back in the public eye. Do you see similarities between Wendy and Gov. Richards?
JR: Ann made her way on television with a breakout delivery of a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Before that she was not on many lists as a potential Texas governor. Davis accomplished a similar thing with the orange-shoes filibuster of a state Senate bill engineered to limit abortions and routine women’s health care providers last year, Her instant fame spread that night not through TV but social media. One would not expect Greg Abbott to be blunder-prone like Ann’s opponent Clayton Williams, but then he married himself to the many outrages of Ted Nugent, which didn’t gain him one vote he didn’t already have. With an opponent who’s revealed himself as a tone-deaf and inexperienced campaigner, Davis has the spunk and talent to pull it off. Conventional wisdom is that it’s a desperate long shot, but in her 1990 race Ann was more than 20 points down in her own polling on Labor Day. Surprises do occur in politics.
Jan Reid will appear at the San Antonio Book Festival. Click here to check out the schedule online. Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and customize your own schedule for the day by choosing your favorites.
*Featured/top image: Ann Richards was a born entertainer, author Jan Reid says. Photos courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. From Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid,