Page Two: Tearing It Up
Smart, committed, and usually the funniest person in the room, Ann Richards kicked down doors and prepared us all for the future
Sometimes, even when she was aglow like that, if you looked at her closely, you could see that the real Ann Richards wasn't there. Okay, she was there but she was somewhere inside, thinking or planning or resting. The Richards show was more than just the woman. When Ann came full into Ann Richards, her eyes went to sparkling and her smile was the biggest thing in the room; you could feel it. Her presence was just as powerful as she wanted it to be; she could turn it up past the known and lower it to almost quiet.
Now, I would argue that this was true regardless of how you felt about the woman or her politics. Over the years, I've met many larger-than-life people. More often than not, these folks are intellectually driven. Not necessarily brilliant, but whether they are writers or politicians, actors or fashion models the real driving force is their intelligence. They know how to create/project/be themselves whether on the Web, on the page, in a classroom, at a rally, onscreen, or on the stage. Many times you find that, in person, they are subdued and modulated the rock star who can fade into the crowd. Others have an equally outsized personal physical presence all the time. Whether you like their work or not, like their ideas or not, they radiate. Ann levitated and radiated.
Lest this seem like just more fawning from another Richards acolyte (and these notes are at least that), I must point out that The Austin Chronicle and Ann Richards had a less than harmonious relationship. When Richards was governor, she was the darling of national liberal, progressive, enlightened, middle-of-the-road, and even vaguely feminist media, as well as of international media in general. The Chronicle was not such a fan. At the time, the main emphasis of our political coverage was local, with only limited state coverage, and most of that was focused on the misdeeds of the Legislature when it was in session. So, honestly, I don't remember our overall coverage of Gov. Richards' administration. There was ongoing criticism, however, of her refusal to intervene in criminal cases, especially when it came to commuting death sentences or pardoning those who received unreasonable sentences for marijuana-related offenses.
There was regular Chronicle coverage of developer Gary Bradley, almost none of which could be mistaken for supportive. An aspect of this included several pieces about Gov. Richards being in a land deal with Bradley, none of them distinct in tone from the attitude described above.
"Why Does Ann Richards Want to Build a Mega-Mall on This Protected New Jersey Wetland? Our Formal Liberal Icon Now Makes $385 an Hour Representing Shopping Mall Developers, Weapons Makers, and Big Tobacco" was the copy on the Chronicle's Oct. 24, 1997, cover. Published almost three years after she left office, the story was about Richards' work as a lobbyist. If you don't know what sniveling equivocating is, read my "Page Two" editorial in that issue.
Somewhere during those times (I don't remember exactly when), Richards was the guest of honor at a political fundraiser among film folks in Los Angeles. My sister, a senior vice-president at one of the major film studios, went over to introduce herself, noting that her brother was the editor of The Austin Chronicle. Ann looked her in the eye, saying, "Your brother's paper has not always been kind to me." Then she turned away.
Ann and I ran in some of the same social circles (in my case, this was mostly because of my wife), but we really didn't know each other and, at best, might have exchanged passing hellos. Some years later, I ended up on a nonprofit board with Richards. Whenever she spoke, it was always impressive and intelligent, as well as usually very funny.
The second year of the Texas Film Hall of Fame (March 2002), a fundraiser for the Austin Film Society, Richards was the emcee. Every year thereafter, we would ask her (actually, beg her) to come back. Usually right after the event, she would make it clear that there was no way. Months later, the remarkable Eddie Safady (who gets around this town, at least faster than DC Comics superhero the Flash) would get her to agree to do it one more time. She was scheduled to emcee last year's event (March 2006) when she went in to the hospital. At first, I just thought it was only to get away from Eddie and us.
We worked together for three years on the Texas Film Hall of Fame. I write a general script for the event, mostly biographical detail of the inductees so everyone will be on the same page as to the careers and achievements of the people being honored. I write it in script form, sometimes getting carried away and writing speeches three or four times reasonable length. Most presenters and guests just ignored these. Some asked me to fine-tune them into speeches they could actually use and then ignored every word I wrote in what they finally said. Some even delivered most of the speech as I wrote it, but that was rare and unintended. Often as not, it ended up embarrassing as when, after going over the script of the speech for Farrah Fawcett's induction on the phone with me, Dabney Coleman spent a healthy bit of time on stage ridiculing what I had written.
I wrote the most words each year for Ann, because she had the greatest burden as emcee. When I finished, I would send a copy to Susan Coleman, Ann's speechwriter. Together they would cut about 98% of what I had written, coming up with a brilliant, funny final script. I learned as much about writing from comparing what I had written to their finished script as I ever have anywhere else.
Gov. Richards and I were always cordial to each other backstage, but we never had a personal conversation or exchanged more than greetings. I write this, then, from some distance; I was neither her friend nor among her inner or extended circle. I like to think that she respected me, if for nothing else than my deep admiration and appreciation for Bud Shrake, whom she dearly loved. Bud's work articles, films, novels, books is all outstanding, and I would stop on a dime to argue that Songwriter is one of the half-dozen greatest films about the music business. It's that way because of Bud's outstanding script.
This I know now and can tell you:
Ann Richards was amazingly smart, and her commitment to people was lifelong. Instead of equivocating as I did so spinelessly in 1997, I would like to think now I would write a much more reasoned and understanding editorial.
Ann Richards was charismatic yet real, regal yet personable, and charming.
Without question, Richards was one of the funniest people ever. Among not just those I met, but also those I even vaguely know about, Richards more than held her own. Reading the scripts after she and Coleman had polished them was an education, as I said, but one in which I laughed throughout the lesson. Having read the scripts, I knew when she was ad-libbing, and Richards was faster on her feet with the offhand observation or quip than most professional comedians. Her humor wasn't abstract or precomposed. It was immediate, of the moment, and real.
If asked over the past years about Richards as governor, I probably would have said that she did many important things but was not a great governor. Reasonably speaking, however, one can only find "great" and "governor of Texas" in the same sentence in works of partisan nonsense or fantastical fiction. The governor's role was so designed given a specifically weak role in a state where voters demand quality services and resources almost as vehemently as they oppose taxes, any taxes. The problems facing Richards were mostly there before she was elected and are mostly still there now. She did challenge a lot of the state's longstanding assumptions, and she braved a severe economic downturn, planting the seeds for revitalization.
Most importantly, she made the faces of those who governed Texas more closely resemble the faces of all Texans, bringing record numbers of women and people of color into the fold. Conservative reactionaries will snort that it would have been better if more of them were superior at their jobs, ignoring the overriding issue of where they could have prepared for them. This state has always been decidedly tilted toward white males in terms of those who truly wielded power. Over time, women had managed to earn positions of authority, but there was still an overwhelming sameness when it came to the race and sex of Texas leaders and bureaucrats. Richards tore up that script, too, preparing the state, the government, and all of us for the future. It was not her fault the past had been so exclusive that when she kicked down many doors there was a long, transitional period.
At the end of the day, there are our history and our contributions for the future to judge; there are our friends and family by which to know the full range of who we were. In Ann's case, so many of the finest people I have ever met or worked with in my life have been part of Ann's inner circle, close friends and family. Given some of our readers' aggressively trumpeted myopia, I want to make it clear that this categorization occurred in retrospect. I didn't admire them because they knew Ann Richards. I came to admire them and then only later considered that as a shared characteristic.
I'm not apologizing for either the Chronicle's or my positions over the years, which would be ludicrous. This publication is what it is, and that's what it should be. There were times I wished I were closer with Ann or knew her better. But the Chronicle's coverage was never an issue with me.
Without hesitation, I honor her now for her life. She achieved so much and all with humor and style.
Importantly to me, she was a true and genuine film fan who just loved movies.
Even as a fringe character, she made me laugh both hard and many, many times. One can always stand more laughter. Invariably, if we were at the same party, event, or dinner, the loudest, most uncontrolled, nonstop laughter would be roaring outward from wherever Ann Richards was. If you couldn't say anything else of value about her, that should be more than enough.
There is, of course, also so much more to say.
There was no one like Ann Richards, and in this state, especially now, she will be deeply and terribly missed.
Coda: March 2004. For each person inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, a clip reel of career highlights is shown. Out front, there are three large screens upon which these are projected, but in the back we watch it on a television monitor. Now, we applauded at the acknowledged career highs, but occasionally the whole backstage crowd would burst into even stronger applause at some especially cherished movie, even if it was relatively obscure. When Forest Whitaker was being inducted, one of the clips was from Jim Jarmusch's transcendent Ghost Dog. The backstage erupted into unusually enthusiastic appreciation. I looked over at Ann. She wasn't an ex-governor right then, not even larger than life as she usually was; she was just a fan who really loved a great movie and wanted to share her love with its star. I remember wondering if Gov. Rick Perry or President George Bush had ever been so relaxed, unscripted, and human in their careers. Somehow, I doubted it.
Chronicle AMOA Exhibit
It's the final week to view "Black and White and Read All Over: Austin Chronicle Photographers Celebrate 25 Years," an anniversary exhibit of some of the many stunning and artful photos we've run over the years. Check it out at the Austin Museum of Art - Downtown. The show ends Sunday, Sept. 24; there is no admission charge for the Chronicle exhibit. See austinchronicle.com/events/photo for more information.