AUSTIN, Texas—She was so generous with her responses to other people. If you told Ann Richards something really funny, she wouldn’t just smile or laugh, she would stop and break up completely. She taught us all so much—she was a great campfire cook. Her wit was a constant delight. One night on the river on a canoe trip, while we all listened to the next rapid, which sounded like certain death, Ann drawled, “It sounds like every whore in El Paso just flushed her john.”
She knew how to deal with teenage egos: Instead of pointing out to a kid who was pouring charcoal lighter on a live fire that he was idiot, Ann said, “Honey, if you keep doing that, the fire is going to climb right back up to that can in your hand and explode and give you horrible injuries, and it will just ruin my entire weekend.”
She knew what it was like to have four young children and to be so tired you cried while folding the laundry. She knew and valued Wise Women like Virginia Whitten and Helen Hadley.
At a long-ago political do at Scholz Garten in Austin, everybody who was anybody was there meetin’ and greetin’ at a furious pace. A group of us got the tired feet and went to lean our butts against a table at the back wall of the bar. Perched like birds in a row were Bob Bullock, then state comptroller, moi, Charles Miles, the head of Bullock’s personnel department, and Ms. Ann Richards. Bullock, 20 years in Texas politics, knew every sorry, no good sumbitch in the entire state. Some old racist judge from East Texas came up to him, ‘Bob, my boy, how are you?”
Bullock said, “Judge, I’d like you to meet my friends: This is Molly Ivins with the Texas Observer.”
The judge peered up at me and said, “How yew, little lady?”
Bullock, “And this is Charles Miles, the head of my personnel department.” Miles, who is black, stuck out his hand, and the judge got an expression on his face as though he had just stepped into a fresh cowpie. He reached out and touched Charlie’s palm with one finger, while turning eagerly to the pretty, blonde, blue-eyed Ann Richards. “And who is this lovely lady?”
Ann beamed and replied, “I am Mrs. Miles.”
One of the most moving memories I have of Ann is her sitting in a circle with a group of prisoners. Ann and Bullock had started a rehab program in prisons, the single most effective thing that can be done to cut recidivism (George W. Bush later destroyed the program). The governor of Texas looked at the cons and said, “My name is Ann, and I am an alcoholic.”
She devoted untold hours to helping other alcoholics, and anyone who ever heard her speak at an AA convention knows how close laughter and tears can be.
I have known two politicians who completely reformed the bureaucracies they were elected to head. Bob Bullock did it by kicking ass at the comptroller’s until hell wouldn’t have it. Fear was his m.o. Ann Richards did it by working hard to gain the trust of the employees and then listening to what they told her. No one knows what’s wrong with a bureaucracy better than the bureaucrats who work in it.
The 1990 race for governor was one of the craziest I ever saw, with Ann representing “New Texas.”
Republican nominee Claytie Williams was a perfect foil, down to his boots, making comments that could be construed as racist and sexist. Ann was the candidate of everybody else, especially for women. She represented all of us who have lived with and learned to handle good ol’ boys, and she did it with laughter. The spirit of the crowd that set off from the Congress Avenue Bridge up to the Capitol the day of Ann’s inauguration was so full of spirit and joy. I remember watching San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros that day with tears running down his cheeks because Chicanos were finally included.
Ann got handed a stinking mess: Damn near every state function was under court order. The prisons were so crowded, dangerous convicts were being let loose. She had a long, grinding four years and wound up fixing all of it. She always said you could get a lot done in politics if you didn’t need to take credit.
But she disappointed many of her fans because she was so busy fixing what was broken, she never got to change much. The ‘94 election was a God, gays and guns deal. Annie had told the legislature that if they passed a right-to-carry law, she would veto it. They did, and she did. At the last minute, the NRA launched a big campaign to convince the governor that we Texas women would feel ever so much safer if we could just carry guns in our purses.
Said Annie, “Well, you know that I am not a sexist, but there is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag.”