Thursday, March 28, 2013

Texas ("Let the People In" by Jan Reid)

I'll admit, I'm probably not the intended audience for Jan Reid's biography of Ann Richards. As someone who was only eight years old when Richards lost her re-election bid for Texas governor to George W. Bush, I knew her only as a peripheral figure in modern politics--that feisty, white-haired woman from the Lone Star State who ridiculed George H.W. Bush at the '88 Democratic National Convention and staked a claim for feminists everywhere, and both times in wicked little soundbites. In fact, it was in her death that I first came to know her; as news channels replayed those two punchlines ad nauseum--"....born with a silver foot in his mouth," "....backwards and in high heels"--she lodged herself in my conscious so thoroughly that, by the time Reid's biography was published last year, I knew enough about her that I also knew I wanted more.

Reid's book is a thorough, researched, entertaining, and often surprising account of how a mother and housewife who was active in political circles became the most recognizable woman of her time, and almost always through hard work and endurance rather than the typical dumb luck and good-ol'-boys nepotism. But lest we think of Richards as just a tender lily among rough bramble-patches, Reid dispels any preconceptions by letting us know--in page after page, chapter after chapter--about Richards' troubled younger years, when she spent her days doing drugs, getting drunk, and gradually drifting away from her husband as a sense of uselessness overtook her. It's a strange few chapters in the book, not because it sometimes feels like oversharing--this is a biography, after all, and Reid's job is to tell the truth as it is--but because in this age of hyper-sanitized life stories and endless media scrutiny, it's unique to see a politician's struggles laid out so bare and unpolished for us to see. In fact, as Reid points out, Richards did much the same during her own life, turning opponents' attacks on her alcoholism into opportunities to reach out to those who also struggled, especially Texas inmates who lacked any rehabilitation beyond prison walls. (As Reid mentions towards the end of his biography, one of Richards' greatest legacies is that of someone who helped the incarcerated fight the demons of dependency, which often led prisoners to re-offend and fall back into the system.) By the time she was elected governor, she was off illegal drugs, had been in AA for years, and maintained a respectful relationship with her ex-husband.

Even more incredible, though, is the detail Reid puts into demonstrating just how progressive Richards was on social issues, even as she governed a state that was becoming increasingly more conservative. (Texas has not had a Democratic governor since Richards left office in 1995.) Richards--the second female governor of Texas, and the first to be elected without help from a prominent spouse--appointed more women, Hispanics, and African-Americans to top government posts than anyone before or since, and her stance on LGBT rights--she didn't care--put her at odds with most of the country in the early 90s and, unfortunately, helped Bush's campaign--led by Karl Rove--make her into a liberal with radical views who didn't deserve to keep the state's top job. That's not to say Reid lets Richards off the hook for some of her more damaging decisions--not vetting close friends and campaign aides, letting her emotions get to her during speeches, becoming too enamored with the national spotlight--but he also knows that Richards was an anomaly: a politician who wanted to do right by all the people, not just those who voted for her, and in following her sense of duty she became a target.

What tends to slow Reid's book down, besides his immersion in all things Texas, is his over-reliance on letters written to and by Richards. They are deeply personal, often witty, and rich with information about Richards as she was beyond the cameras and speeches--her letters to Bud Shrake, for example, are sweet and frequently heartbreaking--but they often dominate chapters that are fine on their own. Reid relishes in reprinting many of Richards' letters and speeches fully, even though they take up pages at a time and tend to numb any interest the rest of the chapter had already built up. On top of this, Richards' most important speeches, including her '88 convention speech, are left either in snippets or unprinted altogether. This seems like an ultimate travesty--to write the biography of a state treasurer who was catapulted to national prominence (and the Governor's Mansion) because of a knock-down political speech and not give that speech its due. For many people, myself included, that speech defined Richards' legacy as someone who was funny, whips-mart, and photogenic but also warm, relatable, and never far from her roots...precisely the person Reid writes about, and precisely the kind of person we need more of.