an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
When Texas Monthly writer Jan Reid published his well-received biography of Gov. Ann Richards in late 2012, TEOA couldn’t help notice some moving passages about her death in 2006 and legacy. We took the opportunity to ask Reid about his book, why some Texans haven’t even heard of the legendary governor, and what Richards might say about the state of Austin today.
There is a moving passage in your book about Gov. Richards’ death and her burial at the Texas State Cemetery. You write about meeting some young people in the cemetery who may not know Gov. Richards’ name. If young people in Austin don’t really know her story, are we losing sight of her legacy and accomplishment?
I was startled by those students that day, partly because I had put off going to the State Cemetery to see her and Bud Shrake’s graves until the very last in writing the book, and the kids had been looking around with what appeared to be a great deal of interest. Of course, in a way I shouldn’t have been surprised. Let’s say they were fourteen, my approximate guess. They would have only been only ten years old when she died, and her last day in elected office would have transpired two years before they were born. My first real awareness of and interest in a Texas governor was John Connally, and he was elected to his first term in 1962, when I was a junior in high school. Yet as my education and working life have played out, I’ve been more invested in knowing about politics and government than most of my peers. I’ve learned a fair amount about Jimmy Allred, because he came from my hometown and was a liberal and strong supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Jim Hogg and William P. Hobby have reputations as effective Texas governors, but I know almost nothing about them or their achievements. Except for a reading interest in Sam Houston — and that is as much fiction as fact — I can’t say my knowledge extends much farther back than when my parents were young.
The only governor I’ve known personally is Ann, and I came to know her pretty well. She was such a charismatic and refreshing politician, and those six years between her convention keynote and the loss to George W. Bush had begun with such promise. And it happened in Texas, of all places! On Election Night in 2008, my wife and I were transfixed by television images of the celebration sparked by Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. There were hundreds of thousands of people in Chicago’s Grant Park that night, but I kept thinking I had not only seen something like that before, albeit on a fraction of the scale, but I experienced it. In 1990 such an outburst of joy had taken place in a ballroom in Austin’s Hyatt Hotel, the night Ann was elected governor. The second of these questions address the specifics of her legacy, and I’ll try to address them, but she was certainly aware that gains in politics and government can be frittered away and they’re always dimmed by the passage of time. Early in the research and writing of my book, Jim Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas, shared an interview he had videotaped with Ann when she was seventy. He asked her whether she was satisfied with progress made by American women in her time. “Oh, I am hardly satisfied,” she told him. “I am outraged most of the time at how progress seems to stall — how difficult it is for young people to realize that their very freedoms are in jeopardy if they are not willing to fight for them. But you also have to look back and accept and be pleased that things have changed. My grandmother, during a period of her life, didn’t have the right to vote. The law in Texas was that idiots, imbeciles, the insane, and women could not vote. And, less than one generation later, I was the governor of Texas. Now that’ll tell you that we have progressed.”
What changed or ended in Austin because of Ann Richards? Her political ascent must have threatened the end of a certain old boy’s club politicking in the capital. Was that the primary change?
My track to writing Let the People In occurred in phases. After Ann died in 2006, to my surprise Evan Smith, then the editor of Texas Monthly, asked me to write its memorial essay. I was surprised because I had never been one of the magazine’s political reporters. As governor Ann attracted and inspired a legion of younger women, and not only in Texas. One such woman was completing her doctorate at Princeton and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. She had been engaged to compile and edit an anthology of original essays about governors in American history — Huey Long, Ronald Reagan, and so on. The editor saw my magazine piece and asked me to write an essay about Ann. As it evolved, to a lesser extent I also wrote about women governors who followed her in both parties — among them Christine Todd-Whitman in New Jersey, Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, and, ever so briefly, Sarah Palin in Alaska. Despite all their ideological differences, the paths of Governor Richards and Governor Palin to office were strikingly similar — a campaign run against an old-boy political establishment strongly rooted in her own party, a willingness to defy those play-hard veterans and the party apparatus, and a promise to bring ethical reform to governance in the capital.
In the course of that second assignment, I learned about the fantastic wealth of Ann’s archives in the University of Texas’ Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and my three years spent writing the biography began. Ann was the campaign director and then chief of staff of Sarah Weddington, the young Austin legislator who successfully argued Roe v. Wade in 1973. Seventeen years later, Ann was the first ardent feminist elected to major office in this country. Hillary Clinton considered Ann her mentor when she was First Lady and then the Senator from New York. A lot of the cracks in the glass ceiling that we hear so much about were put there by Ann. Her legacy is being carried on within her family — her older daughter Cecile is the national president of Planned Parenthood and was a trusted advisor who campaigned with President Obama during the last weeks of his reelection; and Ann’s younger daughter Ellen is a guiding force on the board of Austin’s innovative and much-praised Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. The other major part of her legacy lives on despite the state electorate’s swing to the GOP right. Governor Perry and his inner circle of conservative allies have been in office and power so long that they control every facet of the executive branch, every board and managerial team of every agency and commission. Conventional wisdom has it that our post-Reconstruction constitution invests far superior power in the lieutenant governor’s office. That can be belied in two ways — through the election of a governor who has and knows how to use great personal magnetism, such as Governors Connally, Richards, and Bush; and through accumulating long years in office and exercising the power of appointments. Maybe Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock accumulated and wielded more power in the 1990s than either Richards or Bush, but who could argue today that David Dewhurst has more power than Rick Perry in Texas? Despite the ideological swing to a particularly rigid brand of Republican conservatism (and, thanks to demographic shifts and awakening of the long-slumbering Latino electorate, no less a Republican than Jeb Bush declares the pendulum’s swing in other direction has already begun) the agencies and boards and commissions are filled with policy-making women, Latinos, African-Americans, and others who were once denied positions of real responsibility and authority. For now they happen to be conservative Republicans. But politics and government in Texas will never go back to the old-white-boys’ club it was for over a century. And that change was forcefully engineered by Ann Richards.
What do you think Ann Richards would think about Austin in 2012, with so much new development, new population growth, and perhaps less of the casual funkiness that she knew in the 70s? Has it lost too much of its charm to the God of growth, or would she think that Austin could grow wisely while keeping its “weird city” soul intact?
When Ann and her husband David and their four children moved from Dallas to Austin in 1969, it was a time of dramatic personal growth and liberation for her. I think sometimes that people who arrived in Austin after the 1970s get tired of hearing about how much fun those years were. It wasn’t just the legislature’s Dirty 30 and Sissy Farenthold’s lead in bringing down the last of LBJ’s political machine and the emergence and surprising success of Ann Richards, Jim Hightower, and other liberals. It was music — the coming of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and the other cosmic cowboys, the Lubbock invasion, the punk rockers, the blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Armadillo World Headquarters and the Soap Creek Saloon, Austin City Limits and South by Southwest. The creativity grew apace in writing and filmmaking — the success of Texas Monthly and its gifted editors and writers, the novels of Sarah Bird and Stephen Harrigan, the towering miniseries Bill Wittliff made of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. And apart from the alcoholism and failure of a long marriage that Ann had to overcome, as county commissioner, treasurer, and then governor her cup ran full of all that. The second great love in her life was the swashbuckling novelist, sportswriter, and dramatist Bud Shrake, and she applied a great deal of her effort to establishing a Texas filmmaking community that nurtured talents and productions like Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Bernie, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, and the television series Friday Night Lights.
In 2008, when the hard-fought Democratic presidential race reached the Texas primary, two close allies of Ann assembled an on-line ad that began soft and hazy, full of nostalgia for Ann and her political career, but then it posed the question: What would Ann do? Their answer was that she would have supported the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. They may have been correct, but Ann’s sons Dan and Clark were both precinct chairmen for Barack Obama’s campaign; their sister Ellen agreed with and endorsed the ad; Cecile, living out of state, stayed silent and out of the fray; their father David Richards was outraged because a political gimmick had used Ann’s memory and cleaved his family.
I offer that diversion as a caveat because my opinion of what she would think of Austin today is personally tinted conjecture, no less so than the conclusions drawn by those politicos and their ad. After Ann lost her bid for reelection in 1994, she remained a force in national politics because she had been a media star in Washington and New York before she was elected governor. After she left the Governor’s Mansion, two of her Austin homes were in stylish condominiums that sprouted west of the Capitol. But the urban day-to-day experience that thrilled her most in life transpired in New York, not in Austin. I suspect she would consider the downtown high rises today with a mixture of respect and skepticism. Plenty of fine restaurants, upscale shopping, and a boom in pricey real estate drive inner-city Austin, but so far it has almost none of the street life, the sense and history of urban neighborhood, one feels in New York, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco. She would love it that her friend Willie Nelson sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” when his statue was unveiled amid the glitz of the downtown street that now bears his name. Bobby Whitlock, one of the singers and writers of Eric Clapton’s brilliant but short-lived band Derek and the Dominos, barked and laughed on being honored in the city council chambers: “’Bobby Whitlock Day in Austin’ — it don’t get no weirder than that!”
Artists of all ages and stripes keep arriving, and a lot of them manage to pay the rent. Ann would be exhilarated by the high-tech companies and entrepreneurs flourishing here; as governor she worked hard to sell that vision of Austin elsewhere in the country. Some questioned her commitment to environmental protection, but when she was county commissioner she battled the Highway Department and instead of the usual sturdy but ugly blight, she made the Loop 360 bridge across Lake Austin one of the iconic images of the city. As governor she vetoed a bill the legislature tailored to the wants of a developer, and Ann’s old friend, who carried on a feud with the defenders of Barton Springs. It would bother her now that young families can too often penetrate the housing market only in suburbs that may not be soulless, but they look and feel like they could be anywhere in America. She would be delighted by the youth-driven arts scene in east Austin but concerned that Latinos and African-Americans are being priced and taxed out of neighborhoods their families and heritages built. When Ann moved to Austin it had a population of about 250,000. The 2011 census set the city’s population at a little more than 820,000, and the metropolitan area is estimated at 1.7 million. The boom of growth is obvious; in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a visiting official noted sadly that there were more construction cranes in Austin than in New Orleans. Except for the years when Ann was governor and had drivers, she was an avid motorist; like everyone would be aghast at the traffic logjams of today. In 1994 editors of Men’s Journal, a magazine in New York, asked me to contribute my take on the city in a special issue on Austin; I quoted a Californian who joked, “They have a little traffic jamlet that lasts about fifteen minutes.” Well, no more.
I believe Ann would be disappointed that the University of Texas continues to hold itself largely aloof from the city, when it should be a creative and intellectual partnership. She would shake her head at the Tea Party dominance of the legislature and would have been embarrassed by the presidential campaign of Rick Perry. But she would take heart that in Austin proper, the city she loved and that loved her back, in the last two elections Barack Obama carried over 60 percent of the vote.