Though Texas remains very much a Republican state, one Texas Democrat still holds a high approval rating throughout the country. With a documentary making the film festival rounds, the play Ann headed for Broadway and now a biography on her life hitting the bookstores, Texas’ own white hot mama, Ann Richards, still blazes in our imagination six years after her death.
Why does her life, personality and politics still fascinate us? This is the question I posed to Jan Reid the author of Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, when I spoke to him before his visit to Houston's Brazos Bookstore on Monday night.
In this political world of scripted politicians and 30-second sound bites, Reid believes Richards lives on so vividly in our memories because she was “such a refreshing difference from what we see now.”
Reid, a journalist and novelist, first met Richards in 1980 and would later serve as an advisor on environmental policy during her 1990 race for governor. During her governorship, he was sometimes a speech writer for her appointee John Hall, who served as chair of the Texas Natural Resource Commission. (Reid’s wife, Dorothy Brown, was a friend of Ann’s who served as a chief aide on her staff.)
In the prologue to the book, Reid is upfront about his connection with Richards.
“I knew people would know who I was and who my wife was, so if I wrote a puff piece about Ann Richards, I’d just get beat to hell. I was really taking pains to give the warts in addition to the smiles. I was really careful about that. But I also thought I had to be upfront about it. I couldn’t pretend that I was never in the picture and that I didn’t have a personal relationship with her. [But] I didn’t want that to intrude,” he said.
The real Ann?
During the book’s recounting of her run for Texas governor, Reid references an October 1990 Texas Monthly profile of Richards where she says, “Everybody wanted to let Ann be Ann. And they all had different Ann's.” I asked Reid if this was also a problem he had to confront when writing the book.
“Well yeah, particularly the more I found about her other periods. I had the picture of her when she was 47 years old, when her political career was just taking off. But I kept finding layers and layers of Ann both from what people told me and that wealth from the archive,” he says.
Reid found an Ann who “had a lot of fear. She was fragile in a lot of ways. That was the biggest surprise to find how human she was. It was good to discover that.”
Reid says that researching and speaking with her friends and family that knew her before she began running for political offices led him to understand that the woman we remember striding that motorcycle with white hair piled high as the Texas skies was one of many Ann's.
“When she decided to become Ann the public person, she created the persona that worked pretty well for her. Not to say this was a dishonest strategy on her part. She was a born entertainer,” he explained, adding that she understood style and show business and used them to accomplish her goals in government.
Yet by delving into some of Richards' correspondences, especially those between Richards and Edwin “Bud” Shrake, who in the prologue of the book Reid describes as the “second great love of her life,” Reid found a Richards who “had a lot of fear. She was fragile in a lot of ways. That was the biggest surprise to find how human she was. It was good to discover that.”
Though deeply focused on mapping the “amazing narrative arc” of her life, Reid pauses throughout the book to provide historical and cultural context for the reader. All this background information helps us understand how Texas created Richards and how Richards changed Texas.
The many photographs of Richards with political and media celebrities included in the book also help give the impression that Richards knew everybody and was always in the center of the action. When I made this observation to Reid he agreed.
“Oh she did. Her family was way too close for comfort near the Kennedy assassination. She had these very unpleasant face-to-face encounters with LBJ and Carter. She was in New York during 9/11. There was big earthquake in San Francisco in the '80s and she happened to be in San Francisco. It seemed like she was just everywhere all the time.”
Though Texas might remember Richards with great fondness, I wondered if Reid still saw her presence in the current political landscape. Reid said he continues to see Richards' influence, even in Gov. Rick Perry’s administration when it comes to diversity in political appointments. Thanks to Richards, we can never go back “to the old, white boys club."
“She was also the first ardent feminist elected to a major office in the United States. You hear a lot about the cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, she put some of them up there. Hillary Clinton considered Ann her mentor when she was first lady and then Senator of New York,” he said.
Reid continues to see Richards' influence, even in Gov. Perry’s administration when it comes to diversity in political appointments. Thanks to Richards, we can never go back “to the old, white boys club."
As we finished our conversation, I had to ask Reid if he felt a sense of deja vu when watching Richards' daughter, Cecile Richards, the current president of Planned Parenthood, speak at the Democratic Convention.
“Of course. Cecile is a star — just in a different way — just like her mother was. She’s just blossomed, as all her children have. . . But Cecile’s a politician. She can’t come back to Texas and run for office, it doesn’t seem, but she’s probably accomplishing more now than she would if she had an office. The last many weeks of the presidential campaign she was on the road with Obama. He was seeking her council all the time.”
And how would Ann feel about that campaign and it’s outcome? Reid believes, “To have been able to see that in her lifetime would have just been amazing to her.”