How can one describe a woman who had no secrets -- and who not only told you how she felt, but did so without offending an opposing point of view with her charm, realism, and humor? Maybe the best descriptor is the name -- Dorothy Ann Willis Richards.
In the days following the former Texas governor's death on 13 September 2006, one theme evolved across Texas media blogs and guest books as well-wishers and fans posted their comments about Richards. More often then not the comments began, "When I met Ann Richards..." The theme crossed all age groups and socio-economics, race, and religions.
Richards was a life-long state bureaucrat who knew what did and did not work in government policy. For the record this writer had not met Richards while he lived in Texas, but instead was too busy working on one of the campaigns she began as Texas governor, which was to name and fund (with $150,000) the month of April as sexual assault awareness month.
She was catapulted to the national stage in 1988 when she addressed the Democratic National Convention. Richards later became the first woman elected governor of Texas, and was defeated in 1994 by George W Bush largely due to her opposition on conceal and carry hand gun legislation.
The National Rifle Association had pushed for George W Bush and launched a campaign across Texas to tell women how much safer they would be from crime, if only they were allowed to carry guns in their purse. To this, Richards said, "Well, you know that I am not a sexist. But there is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag" if ever the need arose. The gun bill was one of the first acts signed by the new governor George W Bush. (He also ended the funding for Richards' sexual assault awareness month as well.)
Richards was known for her down-to-earth approach and that she used humor to disarm tension, especially in a male-dominated political arena. In her 1989 book Straight from the Heart -- My Life in Politics and Other Places, Richards wrote:
"There is a general feeling that if you're funny you're not serious...
"Humor is a powerful tool. It clears the air. Once you laugh, your mind is opened and then you are able to hear the things that are being said to you."
Richards said that the difference between the sexes was largely about humor -- women fear that men will physically hurt them, and men fear women will laugh at them.
While Richards remained sober (from alcohol) for more than 20 years through time of death, she long said that keeping alcohol recovery secret was ill advice. "Do not be afraid to talk about it. Secrets are so destructive to your life and to your psyche and to your energy, to everything. So talk about who you are with pride."
Recovery comes from within, Richard contended, and while addicts cannot be forced into recovery, they can be offered help. "I'm living proof of that. I can't tell you how to do it. I can only tell you that it works."
During an interview two days after President George W Bush was sworn into office for his first term, Richards told Hugh Downs on Larry King Live that, "The public does not like you to mislead or represent yourself to be something you're not.
"And the other thing that the public really does like is the self-examination to say, you know, I'm not perfect. I'm just like you.
"They don't ask their public officials to be perfect. They just ask them to be smart, truthful, honest, and show a modicum of good sense."
After Richards' mother suffered through osteoporosis, she launched an awareness campaign for women to monitor their bone density and to seek treatment for the disease. Richards co-authored her second book I'm Not Slowing Down - Winning my battle with osteoporosis with Dr. Richard Levine.
Friend, and journalist, Molly Ivins described Richards on the day of her death as a generous lady who knew what women faced each day in the United States of America. "She knew what it was like to have four young children and to be so tired that you cried while folding the laundry."
Ivins wrote from first-hand experience about Richards' approach on handling people of all backgrounds.
At a political gathering many years before her governorship, Richards was being introduced to a Texas judge along with Ivins and former state comptroller Charles Miles, who was African American. The white judge, in his line-up of introductions, shook hands with Ivins, but shunned Miles' outstretched hand. Richards was next in line, and when the judge smiled at her and asked for her name, the fair, blond, blue-eyed (then divorced) Ms. Richards shook the judge's hand and said she was Miles' wife.
As governor, Richards began a rehab program in state prisons. This program too was killed during the Bush administration. The program was meant to assist non-violent prisoners in weaning themselves off alcohol and drugs so that they could return to society as productive contributors. At the programs launch, governor Richards met with prisoners multiple times to monitor the program's progress Ivins recalls. As with each meeting, she introduced herself only as "Ann" and stated, "and I'm an alcoholic."
Few journalists are as adept of Texas politics as Ivins, who said Richards represented the new Texas, which is now lost again. All state functions had been under court order before Richards took office. Richards gained the trust of bureaucrats to repair the damage. "But she disappointed many of her fans because she was so busy fixing what was broken that she never got to change much. The 1994 election was a God-gays-and-guns deal," Ivins wrote.
After losing the governor election to Bush, Richards continued to support her party with speaking engagements and fundraisers, but she never returned to political office.
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