Premiering tonight on HBO, All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State opens exactly where you might expect it to open: at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
The second term of President Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was nearing its end, and the Democratic National Committee had been looking for someone to light a fire under delegates for its Michael Dukakis-Lloyd Bentsen ticket. To deliver the keynote speech, they turned to Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards, who was not especially well known at the time outside of her home state.
If Richards arrived in Atlanta a relative unknown, however, she left a political superstar, having delivered a caustically funny, career-defining speech in which, among other things, she remarked that Bush, the Republican candidate to succeed Reagan, “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
“Unfortunately, I screwed up the final campaign,” Dukakis reflects now in this 82-minute documentary. “I always say that I peaked in Atlanta, and one of the reasons is that Ann did such a fantastic job. Everybody knew who Ann Richards was when that convention was over.”
Born in 1933 in Lakeview, Texas, Ann Willis grew up with poor but progressive parents, including a father who constantly assured her that she could become anything she set her mind to, as long as she was willing to work for it. In high school, she excelled in speech and debate and attended college on a debate-team scholarship. After marrying her high school sweetheart, attorney David Richards, she moved with him to Austin, where she taught classes at a junior high school and raised four children.
Especially compared to Dallas, Austin was a hotbed of progressive politics, a cause both David and Ann embraced enthusiastically. She worked tirelessly in support of liberal Democrats and eventually David talked her into running for office herself. Ann initially resisted the notion, fearing it would take a toll on their marriage. She was right: As her political career began to take off, the couple eventually divorced but remained cordial. Around this time, Richards also sought treatment for what she recognized to be a growing addiction to alcohol.
Her quick wit and Texas charm made Richards a hot commodity on the fund-raising circuit, where candidates frequently booked her to make appearances.
“She was a traveling late-night show, but she did not have an entourage of comedy writers,” notes former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes. “Some of Ann’s greatest lines were written at the head table while she was sitting there waiting to speak.”
After her term as state treasurer, Richards entered and, against all odds, won a bitter 1990 Texas gubernatorial race in which she was hammered relentlessly by male opponents from her own party as well as her Republican opponent, cowboy millionaire Clayton Williams, who committed the twin sins of being publicly rude to Richards and blurting out a series of unfortunate gaffes, including the admission that he paid no income tax one year.
As governor, Richards moved swiftly and decisively to take power away from special-interest groups and eliminate cronyism, but as her first term neared its close, with Richards at a 60-plus percent approval rating, those interests lashed back, supporting novice opponent George W. Bush. Bush may have lacked experience, but he had a secret weapon in Karl Rove, a campaign strategist who understood that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the “truth.” Although the crime rate was dropping in Texas for the first time in decades, Bush kept repeating assertions that Richards was soft on crime. Behind the scenes, Rove unleashed a “whisper campaign” insisting that Richards was a lesbian.
When the dust settled, she lost re-election by eight percentage points. Disappointed yet undaunted, Richards reckoned that she had another good 20 years ahead of her and took on a heavy schedule of appearances supporting progressive candidates and women’s rights issues. This time, however, her prediction was off the mark: What she thought was chronic attacks of heartburn turned out to be esophageal cancer, which claimed her life in 2006 at age 73.
All About Ann filmmakers Keith Patterson and Phillip Schopper drew heavily on interviews with close friends, family members and admirers of Richards, including ex-husband David Richards and their children Cecile and Dan; politicians Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and former Texas mayors Ronald Kirk and Henry Cisneros; newsman Tom Brokaw, and longtime close friend and columnist Liz Smith.
It’s no surprise, though, that the most memorable moments in All About Ann come from archival footage of Richards herself, a rose of Texas who was anything but yellow. As the country swings into what promises to be some very ugly mid-term politicking, the integrity and passion for equality that Richards embodied are starting to seem, regrettably, like fondly remembered antiques.