Review: Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid Print E-mail

ann richards(Oxford American February 11, 2013)

Among the reasons we remember Texas governor Ann Richards—she of the frosty pompadour, whom cancer took at age 73, in 2006—is her pearly shot at George H. W. Bush during her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (After Poppy Bush won election, he sent Richards a small silver pendant in the shape of a foot, a token of his affection.) Richards’s twin silver streaks of hair and tongue became her trademarks, bringing her national notoriety and an unlikely rise in Texas politics.

Some in the Lone Star State may recognize the multitude of characters in Jan Reid’s long-winded biography; the rest of us must sort through a mountain of facts. Waco-born and Baylor-educated, Richards was, by her late thirties, married to an ACLU lawyer, the mother of four, and perilously alcoholic. The booze and occasional drug use resulted in a family intervention and clinical treatment that saved her life. She traded one addiction for another, politics, and seems to have loved the punishing public spotlight as much as she loved spending her weekends reading memos. After stints as Travis County commissioner, in Austin, and state treasurer, she won the Texas governorship in 1990, largely because of her snappish wit and tireless spunk.

The best parts of Let the People In rope together that first big win and her first major loss. In 1990, her opponent was the dumb-as-a-doorstop oilman and rancher Clayton Williams, who on a rainy day during the campaign related rape to bad weather, saying, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” While Williams was opening his yap wide for voters to hear his inner frat boy, his 27-point lead vanished and Richards won the election by two points.

Aside from her barbed tongue, what got Richards elected were her connections, relentless campaigning, and considerable money. And she rebroadcast Williams’s follies on television, cheekily calling them public service announcements. She urged him to debate her but he refused. She turned Williams’s boast about running his gas pipelines across others’ land—the hated exercise of “eminent domain”—into an attack point. In his steady reportorial style, Reid writes:

Ann released all her income tax returns and challenged Williams to do the same. He bragged that it would take an eighteen-wheeler to haul all his personal and business tax returns. A young member of Richards’s campaign team, John Hatch, had friends in the trucking business, and they arranged to haul an eighteen-wheeler to Williams’s campaign headquarters.

Richards gave as good as she got and bore under Williams’s skin. When he said he was going to “drag her through the dirt,” Texans sided with Ann—not for her policies, but because she relished the mudslinging. Except for Coke Stevenson’s governorship, there’s never been a high road in Texas politics.

In a way, Richards got lucky with Williams’s arrogance: she probably would have had a much tougher time against a more refined candidate, like George W. Bush, a political neophyte and underdog who beat her solidly in 1994, setting his buggy, under Karl Rove’s whip, a-trot for the White House. The three chapters on Rove, Bush, and his son’s surprisingly levelheaded campaign style are the biography’s sharpest.

As fascinating as Richards’s life is, Reid manages to weigh down portions of the narrative. He suffers from a common flaw of the biographer: he aggrandizes his subject—perhaps because Richards was his friend (with his wife on her staff, Reid had access as a Texas Monthly reporter), or because her grit was mannish, or because politicians in our culture are often elevated to the status of celebrities. And why is this? Is it that only within the “theater of democracy” do we find true raconteurs anymore—one moment indictable, the next being declared president?

Reid also draws on for too long at times. Richards’s childhood, marriage, and divorce are tied up in the first eighty pages, but the number of pages Reid devotes to her winning local and statewide posts in the 1970s and 1980s is, like a West Texas road, dustily interminable. From there, it seems as though the biography loses steam; Richards’s second great romance, with the writer Bud Shrake, never goes anywhere, in part because it was all epistolary.

Yes, she was a Democrat, but was she a liberal, as Reid suggests? Part of the first wave of women in politics, Richards was less the “fanatical feminist” (a phrase Reid uses and does not develop) and more a fast-draw politician who happened to be female. In a weak chapter about her time working for Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1971 and 1972 (the ruling came in 1973), we learn that Richards was valued as a fundraiser, not a feminist. It was her energy and organizing that catapulted her into higher office, not her ideological resolve.

As governor she was embraced (and reviled) for her feel-good competence, and her personality was often inseparable from her politics. She touted clean air in Houston, banned concealed weapons, noshed with celebrities, ripped apart her staff, defended Ken Lay after Enron fell, oversaw a 30-percent growth in the state budget, and—her unlikeliest legacy—doubled the size of the Texas prison system as well as the number of executions. How feminism played a central role in all this is unclear.

We can surely credit Reid for keeping alive Richards's swagger and humor, though: “I get a lot of cracks about my hair,” he quotes her, “mostly from men who don’t have any.” One pithy line attributed to Richards exemplifies her irrepressible political vigor: “Politics is a lot like football—you have to be smart enough to play the game and dumb enough to think it’s important.” It’s during such deliciously self-effacing spouts when she’s punking her over-seriousness—some might recall her Doritos commercial with the likewise ousted New York governor Mario Cuomo during the 1995 Super Bowl—that Richards, and her biographer, shine.