Thursday, September 14, 2006
New York Times Obituary for Ann Richards
Ann Richards, Ex-Governor of Texas, Dies at 73
By Rick Lymon New York Times
Published: September 14, 2006
Ann W. Richards, the silver-haired Texas activist who galvanized the 1988 Democratic National Convention with her tart keynote speech and was the state’s 45th governor until upset in 1994 by an underestimated challenger named George W. Bush, died Wednesday at her home in Austin. She was 73. Ms. Richard died, surrounded by her four children, of complications from the esophageal cancer, the Associated Press reported. Ms. Richards was the most recent and one of the most effective in a long-line of Lone Star State progressives who vied for control of Texas in the days when it was largely a one-party Democratic enclave, a champion of civil rights, gay rights and feminism. Her defeat by the future president was one of the chief markers of the end of generations of Democratic dominance in Texas. So cemented was her celebrity on the national stage, however, that she appeared in national advertising campaigns, including one for snack chips, and was a lawyer and lobbyist for Public strategies and Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand. “Poor George, he can’t help it,” Ms. Richards said at the Democratic convention in 1988, speaking about the current president’s father, former President George Bush. “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Her acidic, plain-spoken keynote address was one of the year’s political highlights and catapulted the one-term Texas governor into a national figure. “We’re gonna tell how the cow ate the cabbage,” she said, bringing the great tradition of vernacular Southern oratory to the national political stage in a way that transformed the mother of four into an revered icon of feminist activism. Dorothy Ann Willis was born Sept. 1, 1933, in Lakeview, and graduated in 1950 from Waco High school where she showed a special facility for debate. She attended the Girl’s Mock State government in Austin in her junior year and was one of two delegates chosen to attend Girl’s Nation in Washington. She attended Baylor University in Waco — on a debate scholarship — where she met her future husband, David Richards. After college, the couple moved to Austin where she earned a teaching certificate at the University of Texas in 1955 and taught social studies for several years at Fulmore Middle School. She raised her four children in Austin. She volunteered in several gubernatorial campaigns, in 1958 for Henry Gonzalez and in 1952, 1954 and 1956 for Ralph Yarborough and then again for Yarborough’s senatorial campaign in 1957. In 1976, Ms. Richards defeated a three-term incumbent to become a commissioner in Travis County, which includes Austin, and held that job for four years, though she later said her political commitment put a strain on her marriage, which ended in divorce. She also began to drink heavily, eventually going into rehabilitation, a move that she later credited with salvaging her life and her political career. “I have seen the very bottom of life,” she said. “I was so afraid I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I just knew that I would lose my zaniness and my sense of humor. But I didn’t. Recovery turned out to be a wonderful thing.”
In 1982, she ran for state treasurer, received the most votes of any statewide candidate, became the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in 50 years and was re-elected in 1986. In 1990, when the incumbent governor, William P. Clements Jr., decided not to run for re-election, she ran against a former Democratic governor, Mark White, and won the primary, then later fought a particularly brutal campaign against Republican candidate Clayton Williams, a wealthy rancher, and won.
Among her achievements were institutional changes in the state penal system, invigorating the state’s economy and instituting the first Texas lottery, going so far as to buy the first lotto ticket herself on May 29, 1992. It was her speech to the Democratic convention in Atlanta, though, that made her a national figure. A champion of women’s rights, she told the television audience: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
In 1992, she was chairwoman of the convention that first nominated Bill Clinton. Two years later, she underestimated her young Republican challenger from West Texas, going so far as to refer to George W. Bush as “some jerk,” a commend that drew considerable criticism. Later, she acknowledged that the younger candidate has been much more effective at “staying on message” and made none of the mistakes that her campaign strategists had expected. She was beaten, 53 percent to 46 percent. Her celebrity, however, carried her onto the boards of several national corporations, including J.C. Penney, Brandeis University and the Aspen Institute. She also co-wrote several books, including “Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics and Other Places” in 1989 with Peter Knobler and “I’m Not Slowing Down” in 2004, with Richard M. Levine. On her 60th birthday, she got her first motorcycle license. “I’ve always said that in politics, your enemies can’t hurt you, but your friends can kill you,” Ms. Richard once said. Survivors, according to The AP, include her children, Cecile, Daniel, Clark and Ellen Richards, and eight grandchildren.
I was fortunate enough to have met Ann Richards once at a political luncheon in Austin, and she was as personable and intelligent in person as she appeared on the political stage. No matter what your political persuasion you'd have a hard time finding something to dislike about Ann, who's sometimes brutal honesty and enthusiasm for politics was infectious. She will be remembered, I am sure, for her humor. But in my mind it will be her clarity of purpose, wisdom, and humility that will be missed the most. A lady in a decidedly male dominated state who came by her respect the old fashioned way, she earned it.
She was a real Texan, and she will be missed.