No one could figure out why Ann Richards had been selected to give the keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Virtually unknown outside of Texas, where she was State Treasurer, she the invitation to have her give such an important speech left politicos and journalists scratching their heads. Who was this older woman with her fluffy helmet of silver hair? She began to speak in her Texas drawl, peppering her speech with the folksy anecdotes and one-liners that she had fought the speechwriters hard to leave in, insisting that she had to sound like herself. By the time she got to her most memorable zinger of the evening — “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” — she was a national celebrity.
Native Texans will be familiar with the cast of characters in Let the People In. Before there was Dubya, there was his dad. That was the political era Ann Richards rose up in, and the men we are all now familiar with — Karl Rove, Dubya, and Perry — were slowly coming out of the woodwork and gaining their own ground in Texas politics. What was most amazing was that Ann, who had years of political work under her belt but had never considered running for office, took a leap of faith in her early 40s and ran for Travis County Commissioner. With the encouragement and support of well-connected Texas feminists, she ran for State Treasurer a few years later even though she initially didn’t even know what the Treasurer did. She threw herself into her work with characteristic zeal and was able to overhaul the system and start bringing in revenue.
After the 1988 convention, the stage was set for Ann to move on to bigger things. In 1991, Ann ran for governor; it was a nasty election full of mudslinging in which her past as an alcoholic was paraded around by her opponent. The rumor mill had also been working hard to paint her as an un-Christian lesbian feminist, but she was able to win by a less than 4 point margin. She’s been the last Texas Democrat to hold that office; she lost to George W. Bush in 1994 after only one term. She also ran for made a failed bid for president and was crushed. It was the end of her political career, but she remained a recognizable icon and made several television appearances long after her career was over. She still had a powerful networking system and was able to help rising politicians through fundraising and speaking appearances. More controversially, she was also hired as an adviser to various D.C.-based firms.
With such an amazing life, you’d think the book — the first full-length biography of Richards — would be a breeze to read through. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Reid had an advantage that biographers usually do not: he personally knew Richards. Ironically, that seems to be the reason the book falls flat. After Richards and her then-husband moved from Waco to Austin (they moved around, but always were drawn back to Austin), they fell in with the “Mad Dog” crowd, a bunch of hard-partying political activists with impressive resumes; in fact, the Richards home became Mad Dog Central during its glory days. While Reid was witness to her naughty humor, feminist proclamations, and struggles with personal demons, he also has a tendency to get caught up reminiscing about the good ol’ days. There are numerous long passages about the people around Ann, or about infighting and perceived slights within their crowd, and it makes the book drag at times. Tighter editing would have helped the book significantly. It’s not a bad biography, but it could have been better.
Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards was released in October 2012 by University of Texas Press.