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Austin Writer Channels Ann Richards

Book-AnnRichardsWere she still alive, Austin writer Jan Reid says, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards would be both infuriated and amused by Gov. Rick Perry. She’d be leery of the Canadian tar sands pipeline. She’d consider privatization of government services in Austin to be a boondoggle enriching the powerful pals of those in office. And her reaction to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Reid adds, would be to “would roll her eyes and hope he keeps shooting at his feet.”

The author of a book about Richards, who died in 2006, Reid is in North Texas this week for appearances in Fort Worth (mainly at the Worthington Renaissance Hotel today and tomorrow) and in Dallas (at Lucky Dog’s Oak Cliff location on Saturday). Jump for a lengthy email interview we did with him touching on topics including Richards’ years in Dallas, and how she came to deliver one of the most memorable political speeches of all time.

Glenn Hunter: I believe Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, was published (or at least publicized) last year. So why are you in North Texas flogging it now?

Jan Reid: Let the People In was published in October, and it’s done very well in Texas and elsewhere, and continues to do so. The University of Texas Press will have a very handsome paperback edition out in the fall. Reasons why Dallas now: Several writer friends have asked, when are you bringing it to Dallas? It hasn’t happened until now mainly because I’ve been scheduled and busy traveling with it elsewhere. I’m just now getting back to writing, to the new book I have underway. And there was the question of, all right, where in Dallas? The city seems to have a surprising dearth of bookstores, but then the Press and I were pleased to learn of the Lucky Dogs and their interest in having a talk and signing at one of their stores.

Then the Texas State Historical Association honored the biography with—forgive the wordiness, I’ll quote them to make sure I have it right—the 2012 Coral H. Tullis Memorial Prize for Best Book on Texas History, and is co-recipient of the Liz Carpenter Award for Research in the History of Women. Coming off my novel Comanche Sundown’s winning the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2011 award for best fiction, an honor previously bestowed on the likes of Lonesome Dove and All the Pretty Horses, it’s been a nice run for an old man. I had to be in Fort Worth at the historians’ conference for the two awards luncheons this week, and John Tilton at the Lucky Dog was kind enough to tack Dallas on the schedule. I don’t drive Interstate 35 one second more than I have to.

And, last, a great deal of Ann Richards’ story transpired in Dallas. She and her family lived there 16 years, she and her husband Dave Richards, a prominent labor and voting rights attorney, were at the event when the Ayn Rand and John Birch Society types chased U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson off a stage; weeks later she was at the Trade Mart luncheon awaiting the speech John F. Kennedy didn’t live to make. Her oldest daughter Cecile, now the national president of Planned Parenthood, was a first-grader at the school where children cheered when their principal announced the president was dead. In Dallas, though Ann never suspected she might one day be a politician, she learned that she had natural gifts as an orator and entertainer. And she met Bud Shrake, then a Morning News sportswriter, who went on to be an acclaimed novelist, journalist, and dramatist—and, after her divorce, the second great love in her life. I married into a friendship with Ann when she was in her late forties, was a volunteer adviser in her winning 1990 race for governor, and knew her pretty well the rest of her life. But I was fascinated by the Dallas years, when she was a young mother and activist, and think readers there will be, too.

GH: Did you hear the story about the children cheering at JFK’s death from someone who was there? Because my wife, who was also a student in Dallas at the time, said the young kids who cheered did so not because the president had been shot, but because they’d simply learned they’d be getting out of school early that day.

JR: The cheering took place at a University Park elementary school where David and Ann Richards’ oldest child, Cecile Richards, was in the first grade. She cannot be expected to recall what may or may not have happened in the classroom of older children that day. David Richards told me that they had no proof as parents who were terrified to be apart from their child that horrid afternoon, but that it was then widely reported by the local media and they believed the reports to be true. I underscore that because one blogger at JFK.history.org maintains that Dan Rather took the story from a Methodist minister and irresponsibly put the hearsay on the air. (I might add that the blogger was extremely hostile to Rather, and Peter Jennings as well.) On a website called neoneocon.org you can find the account believed by your wife, that the third-graders were simply cheering the fact that they would be let out early. On another called DemocraticUnderground.org you can find a man who claims, with clear disgust, that his father bragged about being one of the kids cheering the president’s murder. On the internet you can also find first-hand claims that such things occurred in New Orleans, Terry, Mississippi, and other American communities. The most balanced account I’ve read of what Dallas was like that day is Lawrence Wright’s essay “Why People Hate Us” in Texas Monthly, November 1983. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, the definitive story about the birth of Al Qaeda, Wright was in algebra class at a Dallas high school when the assassination took place.

GH: Were she still alive, how do you think Richards would assess the current political/government scene in Texas?

JR: Let me take the government part first, and understand this is my conjecture, nothing more. She taught mid-school students as a very young woman while her husband was in law school. She didn’t think she was very good at it, and she would be heartened that the apparent de-emphasis of “teaching for the test” will free up public school teachers with more gifts than she had to do their best teaching. The state’s failure to come up with an equitable and efficient system of school finance hounded her term as governor, and that has not gotten any better. She would worry about climate change, especially after the ruinous wildfires of a couple of years ago and predictions of a water crisis coupled to years of severe drought. She would wonder if the pipeline and refining of the Canadian tar sands in Texas is a good or necessary idea.

She would be thrilled at what fracking in the oil and gas fields has done for our economy, and at same time wonder if those chemicals injected in the wells really pose no risk to groundwater. She was an ardent supporter of the free trade agreement with Mexico but would be frightened to drive on Interstate 35. She would shake her head at the folly of Homeland Security’s border wall. She would see abundant evidence that the fad of privatization in Austin has been a boondoggle enriching the powerful friends of those in office. Her stand against legalizing concealed weapons hurt her badly in her race for reelection in 1994, but she would hope the federal government, since the state would never take action, could at least require background checks of every sale at gun shows. She would be steaming at Gov. Perry’s refusal to follow the lead of other Republican governors and accept the Medicaid increases that would come to the state’s needy with Obamacare, and be just flat furious that Gov. Perry’s administration has commingled the politics of abortion with the contraception and preventive health care services of Planned Parenthood.

Politically, she would have been embarrassed and amused by Gov. Perry’s presidential campaign, though they had an amiable personal relationship and she could remember when he was a Democratic member of the state House. Regarding the new junior U.S. Senator from Texas, she would roll her eyes and hope he keeps shooting at his feet. Of the secessionists, she would remark in her inimitable way that they already had a civil war over that, and we lost. She was the last successful Democrat in statewide politics in Texas, and the voters turned her out emphatically 19 years ago. Yet Jeb Bush, of all people, has said that Texas might become a reliably “blue” state in the next couple of presidential elections. He ventured that because demographics are changing rapidly and the long-slumbering giant of Texas’ Hispanic vote has showed signs of awakening. She might see in San Antonio’s Castro brothers, Julian and Joaquin, the promise of young Democrats who could accomplish what she did. Or Fort Worth’s senator Wendy Davis or Austin’s state representative Donna Howard, among several other Democrats in serving the legislature with flair. But with her party this far in the hole, she would know that they would need as much talent, brass, and rare luck as she had.

GH: You mention her brass and talent, and of course she was renowned for her humor as well. In fact I’ve read that Richards’ keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention—the one with her line about George H.W. Bush being “born with a silver foot in his mouth”—has been acclaimed as one of the all-time great keynotes. Do you know whether she wrote the speech herself or how it came about, with all those zingers? 

JR: There’s a wonderful story about the speech to be gleaned in her archives. She was dumbfounded when she got the invitation, then overjoyed, then overwhelmed. At first she didn’t trust the talents of the people closest to her. Bob Strauss, a big-time Texas politico, put her in touch with a top Washington speechwriter. She and the handful of women who were helping her kept faxing drafts back and forth, some parts of it always in the speech, moving up, moving down, but she felt it kept getting farther away from what she wanted to say. She was also aware her friends were getting pretty weary of her. Then the Washington speechwriter lost the speech in a computer crash, and it was gone, could not be recovered. She and her friends flew to Atlanta with no speech, and she had press and other obligations during the days, so they worked on it all through the nights—her speechwriter Suzanne Coleman, who I think was one of the best of her generation, and her close aides and friends Jane Hickie and Mary Beth Rogers, as well as other female friends and, toward the end, her son-in-law, Kirk Adams.

Some were Ann’s lines—like “that old dog won’t hunt”—and others, like the silver foot of Vice President George Bush and Ginger Rogers dancing backward in high heels with Fred Astaire, were borrowed. Ann’s son Dan, who with his siblings was in the wings, said that at one point she picked up her glass of water and her hand was shaking so badly she had to set it down. They thought there might be 15 applause or laugh lines, and there were 40. Wayne Slater, of the Morning News, was the first one she saw as she came off. She asked him, “How’d I do?” He says he thought, Is she kidding? She went out there known only to the fairly small national network of feminists and Texas Democrats, and bankers who just sort of liked her as state treasurer, and came off a media superstar. Before that, she was probably running about fourth among the possible candidates for governor two years later, and that was just among the Democrats. The Republicans had an even deeper bench, an incumbent Republican, Dallas’s Bill Clements, who was leaving office, and they thought they had the ’90 race sewn up.

GH: What do you think Richards’ legacy is, in terms of Texas governance and the way things get done here?

JR: Ann had some successes and some failures in her term as governor—some of the failures were her fault, and some more of them weren’t. I see two things as her legacy. Ever since Reconstruction, state government here had been designed, even in our constitution, as a wealthy white guys’ club. She made it her first priority to change that and open up government and policy-making to accomplished women, blacks, latinos, asian-Americans, gays, disabled, whomever. It’s hard to imagine that was such a radical idea just 20 years ago, but it was. And though the ideological tides have shifted wildly, it can never go back. If you look at Gov. Perry’s appointees, he boasts the same numbers of women, blacks, latinos, and so on—they’re just not the liberal that she was coming in, or the slightly left centrist she tried to be in office. They believe differently, but the doors of possibility are still pretty open wide.

The second part is that Ann was the first ardent feminist elected to high office in a major state in this country (I checked that out). Hillary Clinton was her protege, and though one can say Sarah Palin got seriously sidetracked by happenstance in a presidential election, she had come into the governor’s office in Alaska the same way—opposing an old boy establishment in her own party and running on a platform of ethical reform. A lot of the cracks in the glass ceiling that we’re always hearing about were put there by Ann.