As the Democratic National Convention begins today, we remember a speech that brought down the DNC house 24 years ago – and the magnetic woman who delivered it. Ann Richards died six years ago this month, but while she lived, she was a powerhouse who used humor as a weapon. Written by Kevin Nance. Originally published November 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.
The only thing most people recall Ann Richards as having done as the governor of Texas is losing her re-election bid, in the Republican landslide of 1994, to George W. Bush. She’s even better remembered, of course, for her swipe at Bush’s father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, as part of her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. “Poor George,” she drawled, flashing a Cheshire Cat grin beneath that famous nimbus of snowy hair. “He can’t help it — he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Ann Richards raises both arms in celebration after being sworn in as governor of Texas in Austin, Texas in this Jan. 15, 1991 photo. Richards, the witty and flamboyant Democrat who went from homemaker to national political celebrity, died Wednesday night, Sept. 13, 2006 after a battle with cancer, a family spokeswoman said. She was 73.(AP Photo/Michelle Bidwell)
Growing up in Waco, Texas, she inherited her humor and storytelling ability from her father, Robert Cecil Willis, and her toughness from her mother, Mildred — who, while still in the birthing bed, wrung the neck of a chicken destined for that night’s supper. Later she pulled her daughter “through the knothole” of her youth, never acknowledging (apparently to avoid giving Ann a big head) a single milestone in Richards’ dizzying political ascent, including her triumph in 1988. Ironically for one of America’s foremost feminists, the catalyst for the launch of her political career was her husband, David Richards, a civil rights lawyer who, asked to run for local office, passed the opportunity along to his wife. They divorced after a 30-year marriage — another painful episode like her surprising loss to George W. (despite heavily outspending him during the 1994 campaign).
From the earliest moments of the 1988 DNC speech, Richards tossed out steaming hunks of the political red meat she knew the Democratic Party base, its ribs showing after eight lean years of Ronald Reagan in the White House, was starving for. “I’m delighted to be here this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like,” she said, sticking a pin in her Carpetbagger Bush voodoo doll and polishing her own credentials as an Authentic Texan in a single phrase. At her core, Richards was a warrior, ready to throw down for the causes she believed in, such as women’s rights — “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did,” she said that night; “She just did it backwards and in haah heels!” At times she was an unscrupulous street fighter sucker-punching those she saw as standing in her way. “I want to announce to this nation,” she crowed, “that in a little more than 100 days, the Reagan-Meese-Deaver-Nofziger-Poindexter-North-Weinberger-Watt-Gorsuch-Lavelle-Stockman-Haig-Bork-Noriega-George Bush era will be over!”
She was wrong, of course — her vision of regime change took an additional four years and the advent of her friend and fellow magnolia mouth, Bill Clinton — but the speech, in hindsight the zenith of her career, summed up the essential Ann Richards. Her humor was a weapon, marshaled for the serious purpose of ridding the country of Republican rule, as well as a running declaration of her fearlessness. At her most entertaining and effective, Richards was a political assassin, using her Texas twang, her just-us-folks populism and — the nuclear warheads of her arsenal—her scabrous jokes to belittle and behead her opponents. “We want answers, and their answer is that something is wrong with you,” she riffed on the Republicans. “Well, nothing’s wrong with you. Nothing’s wrong with you that you can’t fix in November!” Hers was the gift of the devastating thunderbolt whose deft comic timing kept it from boomeranging back at the one who flung it.
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