Ann Richards in 1992 (Wikimedia Commons/Kenneth C. Zirkel)
Whoever coined the word “Annitude” in reference to Ann Richards certainly got it right. The late Texas Governor was full of spunk, spirit and humor, just to name some of her best-known qualities. “I learned early on that people liked you if you made them laugh,” she once said.
The white-haired firebrand was also called “silver-tongued” and used her down-home charm and Texas drawl in her indefatigable efforts to encourage women and minorities in government.
In writing about the one-woman Broadway play, Ann, the Houston Culture Map included that word, Annitude, in its interview with Holland Taylor, the actress who conceived, researched and performed the play. Taylor, who co-stars on Two and a Half Men, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress this year for her feisty performance.
The online culture guide also had this to say: “Of course, part of the reason Taylor has been so successful at ‘becoming’ Richards is because the two women were similar from the get-go – both hard-working, determined straight shooters.”
Richards, who would have been 80 years old today, died seven years ago of esophageal cancer. She was at home in Austin surrounded by her four children and by David Richards, whom she divorced decades earlier. She joined 12 other Texas governors in the Texas State Cemetery. Her daughter Cecile Richards has been president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 2006.
Richards was an only child growing up in Waco and won a debate team scholarship to Baylor University. She cut her political teeth volunteering behind the scenes for a number of years, working to get liberal women elected until she herself, a former social studies teacher, eventually became one of them – winning a seat on the county commission court. She was elected Texas State Treasurer in 1982 and was reelected in 1986.
She came to national prominence and became a household name in 1988 when she delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. A handful of her quips became go-to quotables:
• "I'm delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like."
• "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth…”
• “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Following that, Richards was the popular 45th governor of Texas, from 1991 to 1995. A music lover and inveterate movie-goer, Gov. Richards elevated entertainment in the state, putting the Film Commission in the governor’s office, for example. She also was active in the popular Austin City Limits and SXSW festivals.
She was defeated by George W. Bush in 1994. Never one to retire, however, she kept busy making speeches for liberal causes; appeared as a commentator on CNN; and even was featured, with the also defeated New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in a national campaign for Doritos. Richards guest-starred in an episode of TV’s King of the Hill; was interviewed for Ken Burns’ documentary The West; and in the movie W about Bush, she is referred to as “Ms. Big Mouth, Big Hair.”
Richards co-authored two books, Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics and Other Places and I’m Not Slowing Down: Winning My Battle with Osteoporosis, and served as a visiting professor. Before her death, she established the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, a public college preparatory school in Austin.
A former alcoholic, Richards beat her battle with the bottle in the 1980s and was generous with others in that same struggle. The late columnist Molly Ivins wrote, “She devoted untold hours to helping other alcoholics, and anyone who ever heard her speak at an AA convention knows how close laughter and tears can be.” Richards herself said, “I have seen the very bottom of life. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I just knew that I would lose my zaniness and my sense of humor. But I didn’t. Recovery turned out to be a wonderful thing.”
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."