Ann Richards

Feminist Governor of Texas
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Dorothy Ann Willis, politician: born Lakeview, Texas 1 September 1933; Governor of Texas 1991-95; married 1953 David Richards (two sons, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1984); died Austin, Texas 13 September 2006.

I attended just one Ann Richards political event. It was in Houston in October 1994, when she was running for a second term as Governor of Texas. She spoke for about 20 minutes, but devoted half that time to a wonderful story about a Chicago barber who was trying to dissuade one of his customers from paying a visit to Rome. It is far too long to recount here. Suffice to say that the customer did make the trip - and the punch line was the Pope in person asking the customer during a public audience at the Vatican, "Where did you get such a lousy haircut?"

The story had no discernible relevance to the campaign at hand, which in any case she lost. But the episode was vintage Ann Richards, who delighted in nothing more than entertaining. She was a one-off, a politician of deep convictions yet with a born comedian's gift of timing, who never gave less than full value for money. She looked the part as well, with her fondness for bright clothes and an impossibly coiffed thatch of white hair, spun as fine as candyfloss.

There was a deadly serious side under the jokes and laughter. From the outset, Richards was a fighter for women's rights in a state celebrated for its macho image. Back in the early 1960s, she banded together with other young Democrats of her sex to found the North Dallas Democratic Women, to seek a bigger say in a party organisation run by men who, she would remark, "looked on women as little more than machine parts".

In a sense her career was a tale of two Bushes. Richards first attracted national attention when she was selected as keynote speaker at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1988 that nominated Michael Dukakis to take on George H.W. Bush in that year's presidential election.

Hamming up her Texas drawl, she skewered the patrician, faux Texan father of the current President, who was already famous for his funny way of talking. "Poor George," she said. (Pause.) "He can't help it." (Longer pause.) "He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." The remark brought the house down. In the event, "Poor George" won the election comfortably, but Richards - then mere State Treasurer of Texas - became a political star.

Within two years she was elected the 45th governor of the Lone Star state, vowing to create a "New Texas". In many ways she did, improving the education system, appointing women to important state posts. During her governorship, women for the first time became members of the Texas Rangers, the state's legendary police force. She enlarged the Texas prison system, but also gave it rehabilitation facilities worthy of the name. Under Ann Richards, Texas acquired, well, class.

But the Bushes would get revenge for the slight of 1988. Her opponent in 1994 was George W. Bush ("some jerk", she dismissed him at one point). But it has always been foolish to underestimate "Dubya". Guided by the now familar Karl Rove, the younger Bush staged a remarkably disciplined campaign, to achieve an upset win, by 53 per cent to 46 per cent. With Richards's loss, the Democrats' long domination of Texas politics was effectively ended.

The second George Bush of course went on to the White House. But Richards did not fade into obscure retirement either. Even in defeat her popularity rating in Texas was 60 per cent. She appeared regularly on CNN, and had success as a political consultant. For a decade afterwards she remained one of her party's biggest draws.

Ann Richards wasn't perfect. The humour marked a deep professional insecurity. Alcoholism wrecked her marriage, and was on the point of destroying her political career when she went into rehab and stopped drinking for good in 1980.

But even her opponents came to admire her. "She really kind of helped define Texas politics in its best way," George W. Bush said in public tribute at the White House, two days after her death: "In our history, we [Texas] have had characters. People larger than life. People that could fill the stage when the spotlight was on 'em, wouldn't shirk from the spotlight but would talk Texan and would explain our state. And she was really good at that."

Rupert Cornwell