With the passing of one of Texas’ and perhaps one of America’s finest political icons, it seems an appropriate time to reflect upon what true leadership is and why we’re having such a hard time finding it in our state and country today.
To consider this question , it is important to talk about a white haired, pull-no-punches, assume -no -airs and talk- no nonsense- kind of political leader who raised hell in her state, got the job done and got put out to pasture prematurely by a dishonest, right-wing cabal that has since taken over the reigns of government in our country.
Many of us first saw Ann Richards in action at the memorable Democratic Convention in 1988 when , as Texas State Treasurer, she delivered the keynote speech and observed ,without missing a beat, that George Bush (Senior) was born with a silver foot- in- his- mouth.The line was delivered with such relish that you knew no speech-writer had come up with the phrase, but it was rather, the dry and acerbic wit of the speaker delivering the line. Although totally irreverent, it said it all about the man who was running to be President of the United States. It was delivered by a woman who started life not at the top, but from the bottom-up and had come through it a winner.
She also served as the Chair of the 1992 Democratic National Convention that nominated Bill Clinton to be President.
Ann Richards was a down-to-earth kind of woman. She was an alcoholic ( in recovery for years) who wouldn’t have thought for a moment to lie about her disease or hide behind handlers in admitting her weaknesses or failings. In fact, she was very open about her alcoholism, sharing her stories with people in prison who she felt needed to know they, too, could pull themselves up by the same bootstraps. She had succeeded and so could they.
Ann married at the age of 19 and raised four children. She served almost two decades in pubilc office, winning her first political election in 1976.In 1982 she became the first woman to win statewide office in 50 years as Texas’ State Treasurer, a position she held for eight years before becoming Governor in 1990. She bought herself a Harley Davidson motorcyle for her 50th birthday and knew how to ride it.
Ann Richards was a genuine, get- the- job- done and don’t- waste- my- time with ego or pretention along the way type of leader. She was extremely intelligent, capable and charismatic and focused on what she believed were the needs of the people. She had difficulty suffering fools and incompetents (which must have made for a very difficult concession speak after her re-election defeat in 1994 to W).
She was great for the State of Texas. Unfortunately, Texas rewarded her by denying her a second term because she took on the NRA and vetoed their legislation that would have allowed citizens to carry concealed handguns and automatic weapons and cop-killer bullets. SHe also angered the powers-that-be by vetoeing legislation that would have destroyed the environment over the Edwards Aquifer, a major water source in the state. She was also the victim of the Bush/Rove machine that was emerging as a national political player that didn’t hesitate to lie about its enemies (such as creating the rumor in South Carolina during the 2000 Presidential primary that then opponent John McCain had fathered a black child). Against Ann, they insinuated that she was a Lesbian. Sadly, in the great state of Texas, the lies and deceptions worked, giving us the first iteration of the most corrupt and incompetent Governor, now President of our country. But this isn’t about the Bushies, this is about a real leader.
Ann Richards was the kind of leader we long for in our state and nation. She was charming, gutsy, straight-talking and pragmatic. She knew she had to earn the trust and confidence of the people and she did. She was a hands-on leader who went directly to the problem and personally talked with those involved in the process. She worked for solutions and helped create them. She didn’t call press-conferences whenever she left the building. She called for answers and helped develop them when others didn’t have solutions that would work.
She believed that government is a vehicle to help people, not a scapegoat to be vilified while filling the pockets of cronies and campaign contributors with hard-earned taxpayer dollars. She took on the “Old Boys” and the establishment because the average family needed a better way and a better chance. She broke down gender and color barriers by appointng more women and minorities to state positions than ever before; opened up the state’s law enforcement arm (the Texas Rangers) to African-Americans; appointed the first African American Regent to the University of Texas; the first teacher to lead the State’s Board of Education and brought disabled Texans into the circle of power in the State Capitol.
Our country needs more women like Ann Richards in leadership who bring to the table a different perspective and understanding of life. Ann didn’t need to swagger to convince people she was in charge and knew what she was doing. Her power and strength lay in her ability to get the job done without fanfare, pretense or adulation. Ann Richards believed that women needed to be given the chance to lead and to that end she established the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. She is also credited with the keen observation that ” Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but did it backwards and in high heels”.
Ann Richards was a larger-than-life American woman and leader. As she heads into the sunset on her beloved Harley, likely to enthrall those along life’s eternity with her extraordinary wit and stories, we can only hope that there will be other competent and willing leaders to step forward to dedicate themselves with the competence and commitment she so ably demonstrated. She has left a legacy that can and must inspire others to pick up the mantle and restore to leadership the qualities of intelligence, compassion, courage , integrity and honor so terribly missing in our world today.
Thank you, Ann, for setting high standards for public service and meeting them.You are of a far too rare breed. We will miss you. Ride safely.