Ann Richards

Was the Texas governor more than just her acid wit?

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards

A couple of years ago I heard Ann Richards, whose funeral takes place in Austin today, speak at a banquet honoring the 50th anniversary of the Texas Observer. She’d stepped in at the last minute after the original speaker canceled, and her remarks were impromptu. Mostly she talked about her travails with airport security screening. But she was on. Everything she said was funny.

“Now, I wear a garment,”she said—and the word garment was suddenly hilarious—”called a bodysuit.” This bodysuit, she revealed, had three metal snaps down below that had bedeviled a security screener. (“My crotch set off her wand.”) Richards recounted how she’d tried to explain the garment to the flustered screener, who nevertheless summoned her supervisor, etc. If the story didn’t really have much to do with anything, nobody in the audience cared.

Richards’ wit made her a celebrity at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where she criticized the Republican Party in the plain-spoken language of Southern populism (“we’re going to tell how the cow ate the cabbage”) and famously ribbed George Bush Sr. for having been “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Two years later, it helped her to become the first female governor of Texas since Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (who in 1924 replaced her impeached husband, and who was funny in a different way: She supposedly said, objecting to the teaching of Spanish in public schools, “If the King’s English is good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the schoolchildren of Texas”). Granted, it helped that Richards’ Republican opponent in 1990 was a self-destructing campaigner who did things like joke about rape and reminisce about going down to Mexico to “get serviced” by prostitutes, but even so, for a woman to win the governor’s race, it was probably necessary that she be able to talk like a good ol’ boy. Richards heralded a “new Texas,” one in which minorities and women would find a place at the table, but she did it using old-school language.

Yet, how well did that serve her in the end? Richards’ acid wit may have signaled a kind of authenticity to voters, but it didn’t necessarily help her govern. In part, this was because the acid was as real as the wit. It’s both poignant and telling that when she quit drinking in 1980, she worried that she wouldn’t be funny any longer, though as it happened she could still be funny, and she could still be mean. Writing last week for political blog In the Pink Texas, a former aide described trying and trying to alert her of a phone call, until at last she turned around and snapped, “If you stuck a broom up my ass I could sweep the floor, too. But I can’t take the damn call right now.” Her sharp humor and her darker impulses seemed to come from the same source.

As governor, Richards had a tough assignment. By constitutional design, Texas has a weak governor, whose main power lies in making appointments; the lieutenant governor, who presides over the state Senate, is actually more powerful. Richards named a bunch of women and minorities to state boards—here was the new Texas—but the old Texas remained in control of the legislature. The lieutenant governor didn’t particularly care for her. The seemingly intractable problem of how to structure public-school finance, which Texas still hasn’t figured out, loomed over the Capitol. By the time she ran for re-election in 1994, at the height of the Republican revolution, she seemed weary of office. The Christian right had it in for her, as did the NRA, and her opponent was the untested but disciplined (and nicer) George W. Bush.

While Richards’ tart rhetoric connected her to the populist tradition in which she’d been raised politically—in her youth she worked for candidates like Sen. Ralph Yarborough, whose slogan was, “Let’s put the jam on the lower shelf so the little people can reach it”—Bush, under the tutelage of his campaign manager Karl Rove, stuck to a script. In debates, she tried to belittle Bush, but he neutralized her zingers by staying on message. His campaign traded on fear and resentment, warning of rising juvenile crime and greedy trial lawyers, and, via a whisper campaign, the specter of lesbianism in state government. Of course he won the race.

It’s possible, as a friend argued to me the other night, that Richards’ real legacy is that she launched the national political careers of Bush (and Rove); by defeating such a popular candidate, the Bush team gained big-time credibility. But Richards also stood for inclusion, and not just because she hired a spate of women and minorities. Her wit offered a means by which voters could feel some connection to their government—because they felt connected to her.

This past weekend, Richards’ closed casket lay in the rotunda at the state Capitol building, opposite her official portrait, which had been draped in black. A steady stream of visitors filed past to pay their respects and sign the guest books; at least some of the messages read like e-mails to the beyond (“Ann, you were the best governor ever! xo”).

Meanwhile, in the current four-way race for governor of Texas, the incumbent has three challengers: Kinky Friedman, the comic candidate; Carole Strayhorn, who calls herself “one tough Grandma”; and Chris Bell, the Democrat. It’s as if Ann Richards had been put in a centrifuge and separated into components: the salty humorist, the tough lady, the (relatively) liberal. Only Richards had all those things, and even then she couldn’t stay ahead of the Republican Party in Texas. Her kind of plain-spoken populism has been pretty well in hiding ever since.