Cleburne Times-Review Column for 17 September, 2006
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
--2 Timothy 4:6-7
Going to school at Baylor University and being involved in Democratic Party politics, I was fortunate to meet Ann Richards early, before she became nationally (and internationally) famous. Her parents, Cecil and Ona Willis, were regular fixtures at party events around Waco. If you knew Cecil for very long, you instantly knew where Ann got her sense of humor; the man was hilarious. I clearly remember nearly driving off the road from laughing so hard at his jokes as we ferried him around during the 1990 campaign. I still hold that campaign out as the best-conceived political campaign I was ever part of; it was run smart, because there wasn’t any money. Local committees were set up, given a couple of yard signs, and told to just do the best they could. We held a “casino night” and made up signs and flyers by hand. Of course, Ann wasn’t supposed to win in 1990. The Republican Party was on the rise all across the state. Ronald Reagan and then George H. Bush had carried Texas by large margins in three straight elections. The first wave of turncoats were switching parties everywhere you looked. Worse, Texas Democrats were, as usual, badly divided. Ann fought a bitter, nasty primary fight, mostly against former Governor Mark White and Attorney General Jim Mattox. The battle to see which candidate could be most in favor of capital punishment became ludicrous—Saturday Night Live ran a skit featuring the “state executioner” (complete with black hood) in campaign commercials saying he wanted to be “the education governor.” When Mattox accused her of using cocaine, Ann replied that if people had to know the answer to that question, they could vote for someone else because she wasn’t answering it. Not many politicians nowadays would be allowed by their handlers to say something like that. Ann won the primary run-off, with some hard feelings left behind, and faced a nightmare: Clayton Williams, a filthy-rich political novice with a united and determined Republican Party standing behind him. I don’t think any of us on the campaign imagined the national and international publicity the race would generate. It wasn’t as though women had never run for statewide office before, after all. But there was something about the mythology, the symbolism that I think connected with people. For one thing, many in the United States, let alone Europe, still viewed Texas then as the gigantic set of a John Wayne movie. And Clayton Williams, with his millions, his cowboy hat, and his loud mouth seemed like an iconic rich obnoxious Texan. Ann Richards, with her white bouffant, deep drawl and sharp sense of humor (particularly the famous “silver foot” comment from the 1988 Democratic National Convention) symbolized both the new and the old Texas. In fact, her sense of humor was also matched by her temper. I never had to face it myself, but I did occasionally catch some collateral damage. In one instance, late in the campaign, we held a big open-air rally at the famous suspension bridge over the Brazos River in Waco. Ann was stressed, naturally, and not in a particularly good mood. A couple of us unpaid volunteers discovered that a reporter from, of all places, the Economist in London was there to do a story on her. When a hapless campaign aide interrupted her with the news, she turned on him and snapped, “Oh yeah? How many votes we got in England?” Of course, she immediately switched on the charm for the reporter. She was an instinctive politician, with an unfailing memory for names. She seemed to know someone in every little town we stopped in, and usually knew to ask how their mommas were doing, or whether the harvest had been good that year. Entire rooms of people, friendly, indifferent or downright hostile, were overwhelmed by the force of her charm. Most pundits cite Clayton Williams’ infamous “rape is like the weather” comment as the reason he lost; personally, I think it was when he refused to shake her hand at the debate. You don’t treat a lady like that in Texas.
Her single term as governor was problematic. Yes, Democrats pretty much ran the state then, but they were as fractious as ever. Ann was unable to persuade the Legislature to go as far as she wanted in school finance reform, thus postponing the problem to today. It seemed like most of the things she accomplished during her first Legislative Session were rolled back in her second. She had the worst luck with appointments. Lena Guerrero, her protégé, was defeated for Railroad Commissioner when it came out that she had lied about graduating from college. When Bill Clinton insisting on appointing Senator Lloyd Bentsen as the designated grown-up for his new Administration, Ann knew it would be extremely hard for Democrats to hold the seat; nevertheless, instead of appointing herself or Mattox, she went with a third-stringer in Bob Krueger and he was beaten bloody by Kay Bailey Hutchison. On the other hand, appointments are also her greatest legacy. Though it seems hard to imagine now, before Ann Richards, state government in Texas was run almost exclusively by white men. Bill Clements famously appointed Anglos even to judicial positions in South Texas. After her term, no Governor, Democrat or Republican, would even consider making appointments that did not reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of Texas. By 1994, Democrats were in deep trouble all across the country, but especially in the South, due to Bill Clinton’s toxic unpopularity (though he was still more popular then than George W. Bush is now). Ann’s campaign for re-election seemed listless, as though her heart wasn’t in it. By that time, I was in law school and didn’t have time to do much more than watch from the sidelines. George W. Bush ran a smart, well-orchestrated campaign that took hard lessons from Williams’ defeat and he rode the Republican wave into the Governor’s Mansion, setting up a Presidential run six years later.
I will miss Ann Richards very much. As I type these words late Wednesday night, it still hasn’t sunk in that she’s actually gone. She was smart, funny and determined. She was progressive and idealistic, but also hard-nosed and pragmatic. In our current age of blow-dried, poll-tested, pre-fabricated pretty-boy candidates, she had a personality, warts and all; she was an individual. Ask almost anyone who remembers her time in office about Ann Richards, and they can describe her personality. Rick Perry? There’s very little to distinguish him from a mannequin, including the hair. Goodbye, Miss Ann; I fear we won’t see your like from quite some time, if ever again.