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Let the People In, the Life and Times of Ann Richards, University of Texas Press at Austin, copyright © 2012 by Jan Reid. 497 pages.

Believe it or not, not all Texas governors have been as ineffably ignorant as Rick Perry, the current holder of that office, who couldn’t remember the three federal agencies he would eliminate were he elected President of the United States.  

Texas has occasionally had sane governors, even female governors, of whom Ann Richards was the second. The doughty one-time governor of Texas was forever immortalized by her one-line assessment of George H.W. Bush—“He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”  

The Ann Richards quote on the flypage of Let the People In, “Let me tell you, sisters, seeing dried eggs on a plate in the morning is a lot dirtier than anything I’ve had to deal with in politics,” in large measure explains why Jan Reid’s account of the life and times of this fascinating woman is such a rollicking good read.

Jan Reid, a writer and reporter, knew Ann for many years of her adult life; his wife Dorothy at one time worked on Ann’s staff.

Throughout her political career reporters loved Ann Richards because they could always rely on her for a colorful quote. But the woman who would one day delight friends and admirers with her outrageous statements began life in the decidedly patriarchal Texas of the 1930s.

Early Life—Wife and Mother, Sweet Southern “Gal”

Dorothy Ann Willis, as she then was, was later to describe her family background as “dirt poor.” In high school Ann met the man who was later to become her husband—David Richards. They married while still students at Baylor University and graduated in 1954. After several moves back and forth among Austin, Dallas, and Waco, the young married couple settled in Dallas, which was hostile territory for Democrats, especially liberals.

The years that followed were a time of sweet southern womanhood for Ann, filled as they were with the bearing and bringing up of four children. The joys of motherhood are well known; less documented is the mind-numbing tedium of days and years of diapers and demands. Only those who have experienced it can sympathize with the feeling of many women:  Is this all there is and ever will be, world without end?

Reid does a sterling job of covering Ann’s transformation from a “sweet Southern gal” to Democratic activist. Deciding they could no longer stomach life in Republican Dallas (this was long before colors were assigned to the two main political parties in the USA), Ann and David moved to Austin with their children.

Hard partying and drinking with fellow Democrats were the hallmarks of the Richards’ lives in Austin—the adult Richardses, that is. The four children simply got on with their schoolwork. Ann became noted for her outrageous antics at parties and her sense of humor, but her days were still filled with cooking, shopping, chauffeuring kids around, planning their birthday and holiday parties, and so on. Her brains and talent were completely subsumed in these duties—it was all too easy for Ann to use alcohol to dull the pain of disappointment, and she did.

For years she had volunteered to work on campaigns for various Democrats, doing mundane office work, but in 1972, she was asked to manage the campaign of Sarah Weddington, who would one day argue the case of Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court. Weddington was running for a seat in the state House of Representatives—she wanted to propose and pass legislation that would benefit women. Ann later wrote that until she met Sarah, she’d never known any women who were committed feminist activists. Weddington won the race, and in later years Ann was to say one of the most satisfying things about it was that women ran that campaign.

Ann Runs for County Commissioner

With the success of the Weddington campaign, Ann’s friends began urging her to run for the position of county commissioner as the anti-establishment candidate. Winning the race for county commissioner changed her image and her lifestyle. The former suburban housewife and volunteer was now in charge of building and maintaining more than 500 miles of roads and bridges in the county.

Transition from Local to State Politics

Ann’s friendship with Bella Abzug, the well-known feminist and Congresswoman from New York, led to her becoming well known in the feminist community.  Ann addressed the national Women’s Conference of 1977 in Houston, emphasizing the fact that women needed to be in office to represent the women who were voiceless in the halls of power. After that Ann began to be invited to appear in other parts of the country; President Carter asked her to serve on the Advisory Committee for Women.

However, Ann’s burgeoning career as politician, speech-maker, and hard-drinking party animal was taking a toll on her marriage to David. Finally, convinced that Ann’s reckless drinking and driving was endangering others as well as herself, her family staged an intervention with several of Ann’s long-time friends. Ann immediately went off to a rehab in Minneapolis. By that time her marriage was pretty much over, but the actual breakup didn’t occur until Christmas 1980.

Ann’s jump into state politics happened a couple of years later. “In 1982,” Reid writes, “taking advantage of a corruption scandal, she was elected state treasurer and became the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas in fifty years.”

Ann and a slate of other Democrats won election handily, after which she set about modernizing the antiquated, corrupt state treasury department. Ann and her staff worked extremely hard in both an environment and a field of expertise that was unfamiliar to them. During these hard-working years Ann developed a romantic interest in an old friend named Bud Shrake.

The Speech That Changed Her Life

In 1988 she was chosen to give a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. She delivered the speech with the one-liner about George H. W. Bush, then vice president, that made her famous:  “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Her speech took the convention hall—indeed, the media and the country itself—by storm. The next day every magazines, newspapers, and talk shows wanted an interview with her or an appearance by her.

After the speech, Ann went back to Texas and conferred with her women friends about running for lieutenant governor.  “No, Ann,” they said. “You need to run for governor. It’s time.”

Ann’s opponent in the gubernatorial race was Clayton Williams, a Republican from Midland. On Election Night, when she won, she got up on the stage and held up a t-shirt on which was printed, “A Woman’s Place is in the Dome.” Ann owed her electoral victory in large part to Williams' capacity for self-destruction.

Ann’s Career as Governor

Ann knew that she had to make her mark as governor right away or not at all. She and her staff wanted to streamline the state government, institute policy initiatives, and transform a motley collection of state agencies into a smoothly functioning system.

Reid writes of Ann’s governorship:

“The amazing thing about Ann’s election,” mused her former husband, David Richards, "is that it could have happened at all. It wasn’t like she had been patiently working her way up through the Yarborough liberal wing or any other faction of the party." Politically, the word “liberal” was now almost a curse word in Texas; electoral power was swinging fast toward the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which had been a boutique gathering thirty-five years earlier. President Lyndon Johnson is often quoted for his belief that by signing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he had delivered the South to the Republican Party for a generation. But in his home state of Texas, perhaps, the election of Ann Richards as governor had called that into question. The pragmatist governor that Paul Burka  and other centrist pundits raised as a standard was always LBJ’s understudy, John Connally. Ann was not going to go down the path of that snob and strikebreaker, but Connally epitomized another truth about the governor’s office: those who delivered on their promises were ones who used personal charisma to its best advantage. Though it had been bludgeoned almost out of sight by the brawls on the campaign trail, Ann did have that going for her.
Turning Texas Blue Again

Much has been written about the high probability of Texas’s turning blue again.Three recent diaries that discuss this fascinating topic can be found here, here, and here.

Ann Richards
Texas has produced several famous Democrats, among them Lloyd Bentsen, Ralph Yarborough, and Lyndon Johnson. Will another Democratic leader of Richards’ stature emerge in the years to come? Perhaps one will, but whoever does probably won’t be as colorful as Richards. Delicacy forbids my describing the unmentionable costume she once wore to a party, or the remark she made at the card table about her Club's proposed topic of discussion at its next meeting, but take it from me—Kossacks who enjoy reading about politics will like this book.

Ann Richards was one of those people who are larger than life, so interesting, so outrageous, and yet so politically astute that it’s a good thing she actually lived because no writer of fiction could have thought up someone like her.

If there really is such a place as heaven, I hope that Ann Richards and Molly Ivins are sitting on its front porch in rocking chairs, exchanging jokes and trading stories about Texas politics while they sip their iced tea.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 11:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by TexKos-Messing with Texas with Nothing but Love for Texans, Houston Area Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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