26 February 2008

Ann Richards of Texas

An American Original

You can tell a lot about a Texan, of a certain generation, by the way he shakes your hand. It is a gesture as full of significance and symbolism as any book, because it contains the life and psychology of the Texan whole. Of course, if you’ve never shaken hands with a Texan, you must decode him by other means.

I met the late Ann Richards exactly once. Hers was the firmest handshake I’ve ever encountered in any woman. More than firm, in fact, it was hard, almost painful. She could crack pecans in her palm, I’ll bet.

Ordinarily, the handshake of a Texan woman is subtler, like the woman herself. She is less likely than a man to give away anything about herself. The fact that Ann Richards’ handshake was so manly, however, told me a great deal. She had succeeded at what was traditionally a man’s game — Texas politics — and increasingly a Republican man’s game. And she’d done it by outmanning the men.

She was pretty, with especially beautiful blue eyes, but she wore her wrinkles and her snow-white hair with a pride that dared you to say something about them. She got to be Governor because was smarter, tougher, fresher, funnier than any man, but she looked like your elderly aunt — more ladylike, that is, than any other lady. (She herself described her hairdo as “Republican hair.”) She wouldn’t play, or couldn’t afford to, the stereotypical Austin Liberal from Hippie Hollow, and though Molly Ivins was her boon companion, Ann Richards played by different rules. She didn’t even pretend to be a good ol’ gal.

She took positions that in other parts of the country would brand her a conservative, especially on questions of gun control and capital punishment, but in Texas those positions don’t mark one as a conservative, they mark one as a Texan. Many Texans seem to feel that the only thing wrong with capital punishment is that it can be administered only once per criminal, and that we don’t use shotguns to do it. Some day, a politician, or more likely a clergyman, may come along to persuade the Texans to other ideas, but Ann Richards was of the generation of women that believed (rightly, I daresay) that she’d be perceived as weak if she didn’t promote a hard line.

Hillary Clinton has demonstrated a similar political reasoning, on many issues (use of military force, flag-burning, etc.), and that’s one reason I believe she’d enjoy Ann Richards’ enthusiastic support during the primaries this year, if Richards were around to enjoy the fun.

I was in the room when she delivered her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention, when she exclaimed of the Republican candidate, “Poor George! He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I admired the speech, and like a lot of other people, I believed it announced a career in national politics. If Bill Clinton hadn’t been from next-door Arkansas, wouldn’t Ann Richards have been one logical choice for a running mate in 1992? But by the time Al Gore ran in 2000, Texas was a lost cause for any Democrat. Even adding Richards to the ticket wouldn’t have delivered the electoral votes.

She was Governor of Texas at the time of our meeting, at another speaking event, in Texas, at which both Ann Richards and my boss, Dan Rather, appeared. As a fan of her speeches, I was thrilled when she complimented Dan on his. Then came a painful moment. She said to Dan, “Did you write it yourself?”

Well, he had paid for it. Ordinarily he was more up-front in his answers, acknowledging my assistance — and sometimes he did write great chunks of his speeches for himself. (His famous address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Miami, in 1993, was too important and too heartfelt to entrust to me.) But in this case, I expect we both craved the respect of this admired public speaker, and so when the praise came, Dan took it for himself.

Within a few years of our meeting, Ann Richards ran a hard-fought campaign against the Son of George, and Bush’s supporters took an undisguised pleasure in defeating the woman who’d held the father up for international scorn. She was the first victim of the low politics played by “Bush’s brain,” Karl Rove, who orchestrated (it is alleged) a whisper campaign of rumors of lesbianism and drug abuse against her, and although she was hugely popular in the State, she couldn’t win.

The public speaker whose approval other speakers craved.

I had a telling conversation with another Texan woman, shortly before the gubernatorial election in 1994. (I won’t embarrass her by identifying her.) “I just love that Ann Richards,” this woman said. “She is so smart and so funny.”

“Are you voting for her?” I asked.

“No,” said the woman.

I spoke to her again the day after the election. “I am so sorry Ann Richards lost,” she said.

“Did you vote for her?”

“No.” It didn’t seem to occur to her that voting for the candidate she liked might have had an effect on the outcome of the race.

I’m thinking of Ann Richards today because of the Texas primary. Politics can be contrary in the Lone Star State, to the point of perversity. I suspect that, no matter who wins tonight, there will be Texans to wake up next Wednesday and say, “I am so sorry Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama lost!” Even though they voted for the other guy.

And if the contest between Ann Richards and George W. Bush had been decided by an arm-wrestling match, she’d be President today.