Cracks in the Ceiling
An extended Q&A with Ann Richards biographer Jan Reid
By Michael King,
9:00AM, Thu. Oct. 25, 2012
Last week the Chronicle sat down for a conversation with Jan Reid, author of the new biography, Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that interview. (An abbreviated version of this conversation appeared in today's print edition.) Reid will speak about his new book on Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Texas Book Festival.
Austin Chronicle: You were writing about someone whom you knew fairly well and admired – did that present special problems?
Jan Reid: I had to be as hard on her as I could, because if I didn’t, it just wouldn’t be honest – if I did some kind of fluff piece. So I just tried to be as thorough as I could be, and just got into the character – and oh, what a character she was.
When she died, Evan Smith at Texas Monthly called me and said, I want you to write the memorial – with some ridiculously short deadline like four days or something like that – so I couldn’t get lost. People that liked her liked that piece, and I was pretty gratified by that. …
[Later] I found out that Richards had given this incredible archive to what’s now called the Briscoe Center for American History. …
She had opened it up, she stipulated, a year and half after she died. She had opened it up, all of it; the only exceptions were a few death penalty cases and some personnel things; everything else was open. … I couldn’t look at all of it – you kind of learn the art of cherry-picking, checking the index and finding things. …
I think some of the distance came because, I didn’t know anything about her Dallas experiences, or her unpleasant experiences coming face-to-face with LBJ or Jimmy Carter, or being so close to the Kennedy assassination. When I found all that, and found myself writing, I had 200 pages and I hadn’t even gotten her out of Dallas yet. …
That was like writing about a fictional character. … So I thought what a great opportunity, and also a challenge get to be able about the life of a woman like that. But it was also daunting.
Austin Chronicle: That’s one of the threads running through the book, a woman’s story, a feminist story, and the story of an era. … The beginning of the book gives the sense of the flowering of a new culture, and yet it all disappeared very quickly.
Jan Reid: I called that last section, “The Parabola,” and that’s how it struck me. Her first two years she went off like a rocket. … All of a sudden, [Paul] Burka was blowing kisses at her in Texas Monthly, she went off on this great ride. And then it got difficult; some of the fault was hers, and some of it wasn’t. She had some political things that she had no control over: the Lena Guerrero fiasco, and then Clinton is elected president – and you’re thinking great, wonderful. So he picks [Sen. Lloyd] Bentsen, and puts him in his cabinet. And she’s looking around and saying, where are all these Democratic stars they keep talking about [to appoint to Bentsen’s U.S. Senate seat]? For various reasons, she can’t get a candidate [to replace Bentsen] that will have a chance of holding that seat.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, on top of all that [the abandoned Travis County prosecution of Hutchison]. She wasn’t behind that, but they start saying it was a conspiracy between [Richards] and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. That wasn’t how it happened, but that’s how it was portrayed.
Austin Chronicle: You get this group of young Democrats coming in and saying things are going to change, and the old guard looks and says, “No, they’re not.”
Jan Reid: But jumping ahead a bit, I think what she did change, is that even now, politically, Texas politics and government – one thing that’s different is that there are blacks, Hispanics, gays and lesbians not only working in those agencies, and making policy, and in some cases the heads of those agencies. It’s never going to go back to the old white guy’s club, as it had always been. So that’s different.
Also, her influence was important nationally. She had one term, was a media superstar, and lost to another politician; but she was really the first ardent feminist to get elected to a governor’s seat in one of the major states. So those cracks in the ceiling, she put there. …
Austin Chronicle: When you think about that period and those people, do you think it might have ended differently? You speculate that she might have won a second term in 1994, had some things been different. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Jan Reid: Ninety-four was a tough year. Hillary’s national health care project had gone terribly. The national election, [Newt] Gingrich and his people had taken over the [U.S.] House. These promising Democratic candidates, how could any of them win a second term? [Gov. Mario] Cuomo got beat [in New York] – Cuomo had been, “This guy’s going to be president.” And so this conventional wisdom emerged, well, that she had just gotten swept away in this great tide.
But I don’t believe that. I think she blew that election. She blew it; I think she could have and should have won that election. I think part of it was that the folks on the other side were very good, and [George W.] Bush turned out to be a pretty good candidate. He was young, fresh; she was tired, and she couldn’t be a full-time candidate, because she was always a hands-on governor. So she was governing for days and then taking off and being a candidate – she was tired, and she looked it. She was just not the same candidate that she was in 1990.
Or rather, I think she became, in the closing month or two of the  race against Clayton Williams, the candidate that people saw when she made that [keynote] speech [at the 1988 National Democratic Convention]. They didn’t know anything about her, and she found it – and she was assisted by Clayton Williams, just his blunder after blunder after blunder. I think [Williams] was a decent man, but he was what he was. If he had won that race, I think he would have been more like Bill Clements than George W. Bush, because that was the world he was really from.
Austin Chronicle: That oil-field and ranching world. Those guys are hardly represented anymore – now you get this salesman type like Rick Perry. You also talk about the differences between campaigning with a movement, and governance on a couple of issues. One is capital punishment – no Texas governor is going to oppose capital punishment, and be governor. The other is trying to deal with prisons – trying to improve the prisons without expanding them beyond belief. You get a “liberal” candidate who is responsible for the biggest prison building boom in Texas history.
Jan Reid: I’m not sure it could have been different, because of the Ruiz case, and the courts essentially had taken the reins of the prison system. The Clements Administration had backdoor policy, of paroling a huge number of people every week…
Austin Chronicle: …And without much standards …
Jan Reid: Well, [they released serial murderer] Kenneth McDuff. And the counties were suing [the state] because the state wasn’t moving convicts from the county jails to the state prisons, adding to their overcrowding. It’s ironic that someone like her, her legacy would have been, the biggest prison buildup in Texas history, even though they were trying to do different things – drug and alcohol abuse efforts that other governors had pretty much scoffed at. But she was very ambitious about that – that was what Dorothy [Browne] was doing. But as long as you have elected judges, who want to stay popular and need to get elected by promising heavy sentences for prisoners, who are dumped off into the prisons – I don’t know how she could have changed that. I don’t know how anybody could. I don’t think they’ve changed it yet, except that they built the prisons. Now the hustle is “private prisons – that’ll be a solution.”
Austin Chronicle: Did writing the book change your perspective, or your judgment of her?
Jan Reid: Yes. I think that the way it took off, it seemed almost heroic – they were going to do everything. They got [journalist] Joe Holley to write this “Blueprint for Texas”: 88 things [laughing] they were going to accomplish. Too many of them died. I think one of the things – one of the problems was [Lt. Gov.] Bob Bullock. Whatever happened between them [Richards and Bullock], their relationship went so terribly south that they couldn’t stand to be around each other, or to talk.
The environmental stuff: there was the Texas Air Control Board, the Texas Water Commission, four or five of these regulatory [agencies] that weren’t regulating anything. Texas and Louisiana were jockeying every year for being on the top of the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency’s toxic pollution list, every time. And they pulled those agencies together and at least gave them a governmental structure – that if the policies were in place, the agencies could act. And I think that made a difference; it is better than it was, somewhat.
Another thing that she did, when she came in, there was a mess at the Insurance Commission. … The insurance companies would make a [rate] request, they knew it was higher than what they would get, and the [insurance] commissioners knew what they really wanted, and the companies would get everything they wanted, every time. She came in and said, I want these commissioners to resign, because it’s a mess, and if you don’t, I’m going to put it in receivership. Bullock figured out she was going to do that, and it pissed him off, because he wasn’t informed she was going to do that.
The point person at the commission – the one person who became the face of the commission for this new governor – was Jimmy Sexton, a football hero, an All-American running back for Darrell Royal. There was all this folklore about him chasing down jackrabbits when he was a kid. So of all the people to take on in this white, good ol’ boy establishment, it wound up being aimed at him, which was a pretty brave thing for her to do. He decided politics isn’t my game, so he left, and they did get some control of that commission.
But I think her failure was in education. They still haven’t figured out to do public school finance in this state. And she wouldn’t get anywhere near an income tax. … So they didn’t, and they still haven’t, figured how to pay for achievement, and drop-outs, and all that.
Austin Chronicle: You mention that the Democrats couldn’t seem to maintain a B-team. You mention Bullock and Richards, it was also true of Mattox, of course. Mattox and Bullock should have been put in a room together and see who came out alive. To a certain degree, Mauro and Hightower. … But there was an awful lot of infighting, so that they couldn’t really pull together, when they needed to do something together.
Jan Reid: I wrote speeches part-time for Mauro, some of my time, and they officed on two floors of the same building, the eighth floor, and Hightower was on the ninth floor. And you would think, they pretty much believed in the same stuff, they worked for Ralph Yarborough, they both worked on environmental things. Hell, it was like Rick Perry worked upstairs.
The class of ’82, it was all wonderful, but they were back to hating each other six months later.
Austin Chronicle: I think that the talent that it takes to be a really good politician is not necessarily the same talent to be a really good public official. It’s almost as though they’re opposed skills.
Jan Reid: I think Bill Hobby might have been an exception.
Austin Chronicle: Hobby may prove the rule – he didn’t have sufficient bloodlust to stay in the game. Ann, simultaneously had this overarching ambition – which was partly movement oriented, she wanted to be this female figure, understandably so, because she had become a symbol almost instantly. But that also got in the way of her running the state – she had to be this political celebrity all the time.
Jan Reid: I don’t know what makes them tick, really. If they don’t have an ego the size of this room, they can’t survive.
Austin Chronicle: Well, half the people are going to be angry at you all the time, no matter what you do, and then are certain number are going to be actively malicious, professionally or personally. To have that thick of skin …
Jan Reid: Well, who uses, “My enemies”? Politicians and soldiers. Who else says that? My enemy is …? I had an enemy once in Mexico City [Reid was shot in a hijacking in 1998, and recounts the story and its aftermath in The Bullet Meant for Me, 2005], but that’s the only one I can think of.
Austin Chronicle: You quote her saying, “It’s always your friends who do it to you.”
Jan Reid: That was about Molly Ivins. It was a roast of Ann, in Port Arthur, so it was kind of rough, a union place. She’d been going down there and had been at a roast of Bum Phillips, before this one. But Molly participated in the roast of her, and she told this story from the good old days of “sexist pigs” – about a guy who would always be talking about the big boobs on women he’d seen recently. And there was this awful groan from Ann [as Molly was telling the story], because Ann knew where she was going [the story ends with Richards turning to the women in the room and asking, “Well, ladies, have you seen any big dicks lately?”] That roast was recorded, and you can still see it to this day. It could well have hurt her, politically.
Austin Chronicle: Another part of the story is her family life, with the difficult transition from husband, Dave Richards, and her family and children – and in mid-life, that marriage slowly breaks down, and then she develops this lifelong romance with [novelist] Bud Shrake.
Jan Reid: The friendship [with Shrake] started in her Dallas days, but the romance started with the speech at the Convention in ’88. She was born in ’33, so that makes her 55 or so in 1988.
That was something that was just a gift of the archives – I’m sure somebody must have seen it, but nobody had written about their correspondence. And they were doing it by faxes. Particularly from ’88 to the first campaign, against Mark White and Clayton Williams, and then the first giddy bits after. They were kind of luxuriating, he was writing, well, 'This is pretty neat, I don’t have to hunt for a parking place [as the governor’s escort]. I don’t mind me a second waltz after all.' They were funny; they had separate lives, but they corresponded in that way, and it added a whole lot to the book.
Austin Chronicle: It’s very touching. And it also seems that she used a different voice with him, like to family – a bit romantic, but just plain private. She had this public veneer of being an, oh, an Amazon for lack of a better word, but that was not her private face. He didn’t seem much interested in the politics of it all, except to support her?
Jan Reid: I knew him fairly well, and while he had opinions about it, he didn’t want to get close, for example, to a campaign office. That wasn’t his thing.
Austin Chronicle: Any other thoughts about Ann, having researched and written the book?
Jan Reid: Well, what an incredible ride. One of the things I found very remarkable – her father, she loved him dearly, and David described to me, he had died of esophageal cancer. So she gets this [same] diagnosis, one day. The next day, Dorothy gets a call at her office, and it’s about getting this young woman, who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life – but Ann knows her Dad from the car wash board – can you see if find something there for her, just expose her to that.
Dorothy says, sure, I can try. She pauses and asks, well how you doin’, Ann? And Ann says, oh, not so good, I was just diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
Yet the next morning, she’s making a call for some kid that she didn’t know. Just an abstract young kid that was looking for direction – she was going to do that first.
Austin Chronicle: That is pretty astounding; I suppose I would have just shut down. What do you think about the difference between this Austin and that Austin? It has real small town flavor at the beginning, and at the end it has this big city, national and international scope. No longer just a small group of besieged Texas liberals saying what they would do if they were in charge of the world.
Jan Reid: It’s hard for those Texas liberals, the liberal Democratic persuasion. They can live in these little Austin or San Antonio cocoons, but they can never quite get where they are. They can take part in Clinton, and Obama, and national politics, but here – you see that fellow from San Antonio, Julián Castro, makes the keynote speech at the Convention, and it might have been like Richards or Obama. But so far, it’s been forgotten, three days later.
Everybody’s always talking about waking the sleeping giant, the Hispanic vote. Everybody’s always talking about it, but it ain’t happened yet.
Austin Chronicle: Yeah, it’s like the rising middle class in the 18th Century novel. It’s always rising.
Jan Reid: Yes, it’s hard to find much to be optimistic about. … It’s a lot more ideological than it appeared in the old days.