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Point Austin: Austin Girl

Ann Richards was as contradictory as life in Texas

By Michael King, Fri., Sept. 22, 2006

She was not coy.

In what may have been her last appearance on film – at least that's what Clasico Entertainment producer Carlos Funes, who shot the clip in February, believes – the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards played the high-profile enforcer of the Alamo Drafthouse's theatre decorum policy, bodily ejecting a fictional patron for rudeness and noise. Don't disrupt the movie, warned the trailer, or "Ann Richards will take your ass out!" That enthusiastically vulgar declaration was delicately avoided in last week's elegiac TV coverage that mentioned the bit, but Richards obviously embraced it. Her devotion to movies and the movie business was legendary, and she couldn't turn down a chance to shame the idiots who dopily annoy everybody else in the room. Richards did not suffer fools gladly – or politely.

Richards liked her politics and her movies with plenty of edge, and central to all the encomiums and eulogies of the past week was the undeniable electric dazzle of her freewheeling and brazen approach to life – "larger than life," "a force of nature," "big as Texas" were the signature phrases. Some pointed out that Richards' move to Austin from Dallas in 1969 finally matched the Waco girl with a city that was made for her. "She embraced and reflected the elemental aspects of the quintessential Austin personality," wrote Brad Buchholz in the Statesman. "Love of the arts. Love of nature. Love for progressive causes. Love of an inclusive, tolerant ethos. Love of laughter. Love of a good party."

Well, yeah. It's nice to claim her for home, especially this week. But there are also, as in every town, plenty of Austinites for whom the arts, nature, inclusiveness, and tolerance are little more than afterthoughts, if not just irritating obstacles, and for whom the (multipartisan) "progressive cause" of the moment is lots of highways that nobody has to pay for. Broaden it statewide, and the contradictions also get larger. It remains confounding that a state that takes such pleasure in embracing outsized and flamboyant personalities (including the occasional politician) and such a rich popular (and populist) culture should also have established and tolerated such rigid, inflexible, even miserly public institutions.

The ruling Texas principle often seems to be: A lot of us may be starving, sick, and ignorant, but hey, we sure know how to have a good time.


What if, Nothing

On the recent political stage, nobody embodied those contradictions more fully than Ann Richards. There have been a lot of "What if?" columns written in the last week, as in, "What if she had won re-election, and defeated George W. Bush in 1994?" The presumption is that without that victory (won rather easily, as it happened, in a state that had gone Republican under Richards' feet) there is no Bush presidential run (unless it originated in Florida), no federal GOP deep-freeze, and most importantly, no war on Iraq.

What goes unmentioned is that similar consequences would also have resulted had she lost her 1990 race to Clayton Williams – which indeed everybody expected until the Buffoon Tycoon kicked it clumsily away. Against a Republican incumbent, Dubya would have had no reason to run – could that absence have eventually meant a few more years of relative peace for Baghdad? (Definitely relative, as the peace-loving Clinton administration was perfectly happy to wage undeclared siege war on the Iraqi civilian population, with an estimated 500,000 fatalities – an abysmal record perhaps even Bush has yet to surpass.)

As much as Richards talked and lived like a progressive, she governed pretty much as she had to in Texas – as a traditionally conservative Democrat. She certainly did bring thousands of new people (and new kinds of people) into government service and into long overdue government attention. Yet her single largest institutional accomplishment was greatly expanding the state prison system – a "progressive" step made necessary because Texas prisons were by then so desperately overcrowded they amounted to dungeons. So, let's have more and bigger dungeons – with better light and air. She couldn't solve the public-school funding crisis – neither the Lege nor the voters would let her, as they still won't – although on her watch it became inevitable, largely because of a Democratic Supreme Court, that at least equity in miserliness would have to come.

A couple of prog letters to editors this week note acidly that she did nothing to restrain the death penalty – willfully forgetting that in this state, any hint of anything else is unelectable. In the end, her unapologetically rational opposition to a concealed-carry gun law helped to bring her down. Whatever his myriad faults, Bush was no Clayton Williams, and he proved reactionary enough (and masculine enough) for most Texas voters.


Not Finished Yet

So it is, 12 years later, a nostalgic liberal's column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recalls ruefully, "She knew what modern Democrats seem to have forgotten: When Democrats support business, hunting, the death penalty and churches, Democrats win" (Bud Kennedy, Sept. 19). He's right; those are long Texas traditions, first enforced for a century by Texas Democrats: Subjugate labor (especially nonwhite labor), exhaust natural resources, and grant divine power to the state, with the enthusiastic endorsement of multidenominational preachers. So when a few Texas Democrats, notably Richards among them, turned away from carrying on those traditions with quite as much enthusiasm as before, the new Texas Republicans (many of them, like the current incumbent, turncoat Dems) were more than happy to take their place. It's hardly a model to admire, or to emulate.

As she undoubtedly understood, Ann Richards' political ascension was simply indispensable to the eventual creation of a really new New Texas. She led us up Congress Avenue to the Capitol – and we have still a very, very long way to go. end story

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