Four brief shining years

Ann Richards' record as Texas governor goes like this: she gave the joint some class

Ave atque vale, Miz Ann. Hail and farewell, Governor Richards. Adios, Annie. Keep your wagon between the ditches. May your days be full of laughter. Good on ya.

Ann Richards' electoral loss to George Dubya Bush will keep political scientists studying for years. By all the conventional measures, she should have walked back into office. Her approval rating was and is over 60 percent--practically golden. The state's economy is ginnin', crime rates are down, school scores are up, she never raised taxes, and never had a scandal.

The short, easy version is that Richards lost because of President Clinton. In Florida, where Clinton was at 42 percent in the approval ratings, Governor Lawton Chiles pulled it out. In Texas, where Clinton hovers around 36 percent, there just wasn't a shot.

Another short, easy version is that she won by 100,000 votes last time against a gloriously inept opponent, and in the meantime, 120,000 people have moved into the state and registered Republican.

The more complex and more accurate version is that George Dubya ran a helluva campaign and Annie ran a dud. Their race became a peculiar black-and-white negative of the 1992 presidential race between George Dubya's daddy and Clinton, with Richards as the stay-the-course, no-vision candidate and Bush as the proponent of change, change, change.

George Dubya's campaign was full of ideas and plans (of dubious merit, but whatthehey), while Richards neither successfully sold what should have been limned as a brilliant record nor projected any enthusiasm for a wonderful future. The New Texas disappeared. The television ads were lousy.

A lot of they-sayers believe Richards & Co. underestimated George Dubya, who ain't no Claytie Williams. I thought she took him seriously from the git-go, which is why she flipflopped on federal protection for Caddo Lake, thus royally annoying the enviros. But dismissing him as a "jerk" set off the now-famous angry-white-male vote.

I'm not sure what Richards could have done to win over that vote; my personal opinion is that some men feel threatened by a strong woman, especially one with a quick tongue.

In addition, there was the God, gays, and guns factor. As always, there was a campaign that ran below the radar, particularly in East Texas. Richards staffers dreamed up a game: put a certain bumper sticker on your car and drive through East Texas, and the winner would be whoever got back to Waco alive. The bumper sticker would read, "I'm the Queer Ann Sent Here to Take Your Guns Away."

Of the hundreds of distinguished appointments that Richards made, which will surely include the black, brown, and female leaders of the coming years, only a literal handful were gays or lesbians. But the Christian right, using the fear-mongering hyperbole for which it is so noted, managed to imply that the capital had become a sink of iniquity. Richards' veto of the concealed-weapons bill set off the gun nuts. I still think it was statesmanship of a high order.

As for Richards' real record in office, to the extent that the governor of Texas is really nothing more than a salesman for the state, I'm not sure we've ever had a better one. Ann Richards is as popular outside Texas as she is inside. And although her sense of humor may have cost her votes with the angry white males, I think she has definitely proved again that it is possible to hold high public office and be witty, too.

Her biggest mistake in my book was early on, when Bob Bullock had the guts to come out for a state income tax and Richards left him out there, slowly twisting in the wind. (So did the bidness community, which has quietly been in favor of same for many years.) That was gutless.

In the bidness community's books, Richards' appointments in insurance, environment, and nursing home regulation were "too militant." They felt they were perceived as the enemy when they went in to deal with those folks, and no one likes that. There's an extent to which it was a real problem with some of Richards' more purist appointments and an extent to which it was nothing more than willful misperception. Besides, anyone who doesn't make enemies in office isn't worth spit.

Richards said in a farewell interview with the press corps that if she'd known she was going to be a one-term governor, she would have "raised more hell." I wish she had. But these are relatively minor quibbles with what is, overall, a distinguished record.

My political memory of Texas governors goes back to Allan Shivers, and I know that in that time we have not had a governor who worked nearly as hard as Ann Richards. Who was nearly as gracious as Richards. Who made more good appointments than Richards. Who set a higher standard of honesty than Richards.

A special thanks is due Richards from recovering alcoholics and addicts all over the country. Her grass-roots work in this field, done in addition to her duties as governor, has been tireless, inspirational, and quite simply extraordinary. From mansions in Dallas to prisons all over the state, she has changed lives. To see the governor of Texas sitting in a circle with convicted convicts saying simply, "My name is Ann, and I am an alcoholic," is to learn a great deal about recovery.

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