This time 20 years ago, Gov. Ann Richards was knee-deep in a re-election campaign that would bring about a sad, seismic shift in statewide politics and social policies. Today, Texas Democrats are still struggling to get their groove back.
If the Dems are feeling anxious over recent poll numbers this election season, there is plenty of take-away inspiration and encouragement in All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State, which debuts tonight on HBO. Filmmakers Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper have created a documentary rich with archival footage – some rarely seen before. And, of course, there are plenty of laugh lines. Richards was known as much for her wit as her ability to get things done.
The film includes present-day interviews with a cast of local and national luminaries ranging from Bill Clinton to Nancy Pelosi, Henry Cisneros, Willie Nelson, and Dan Rather. “She was feisty, fiery, and unafraid. And liberal and unafraid,” political pundit Paul Begala says of Richards.
But it’s the memories and personal anecdotes of Richards’ family and close friends and advisors that give All About Ann its greatest depth. They were the ones who saw Richards through her dark fog of alcoholism and stood by her on her road to recovery.
Her rebound was enormous. Patterson and Schopper devote a fair amount of time to Richards’ underappreciated political service as state treasurer. Winning the treasurer’s race in 1982, Richards became the first woman in 50 years to hold statewide office. “When there is a mess, a woman has always been asked to clean it up,” she says in one video clip, referring to the financial predicament she inherited when she took office. She not only cleaned up the mess, she modernized the office, opened the doors to minority and women business owners, and made more money for the state in eight years than any other treasurer in state history.
Meanwhile, Richards’ star was rising fast. She was invited to speak at the 1988 Democratic National Convention and by the time she finished her remarks ("Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth"), she was an international sensation.
Interviews with Richards’ inner circle of friends and staffers (Mary Beth Rogers, Suzanne Coleman, Claire Korioth, Jane Hickie, Cathy Bonner) – and Richards herself – add perhaps the most personal touches to the plain-speaking icon's character.
Hickie recalls the back-room tussle over control of the house lights in the hours leading up to Richards’ 1988 convention speech: The DNC staff wanted the lights on during her address; Richards’ team wanted them off. In the end, when Richards approached the podium and began to speak, the house lights came down and the crowd went silent. All eyes were on Richards.
“It was just like putting a dish towel over a bird cage,” Hickie recalls Richards telling her after her speech.
The documentary crams in a lot, and we’re the better for it. We’re reminded of the sheer lunacy of the GOP’s decision to field foot-in-mouth cowboy Clayton Williams as their 1990 nominee to oppose Richards in the governor’s race. And we’re reminded, however grimly, of the GOP’s massive upset four years later when Karl Rove and George W. Bush arrived in Austin to capture the state Capitol, and ultimately the presidency.
Today’s political scenery is still colorful, but ever since Richards’ loss to Bush, we’ve been laughing at our governors, not with them. Same goes for the rest of Texas’ statewide officeholders.
Can any one of them deliver a joke, a stemwinder, or a gut punch like Ann Richards? Nope. Not a one.
All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State airs tonight, 8pm, on HBO. Additional screenings are May 1, 4:45pm; May 4, 1pm; May 7, 7:30am; and May 10, 9:15am.
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