"Governor! How are you?"
"Better 'n' better all the tah-ime." Texas may be 1,500 miles away, but Ann Richards still talks with an accent so searing it'd brand a cow. "Thanks for askin'. " She's standing at the entrance to a benefit for Save the Children, and she's wearing, as she often does, a Technicolor blazer and her shiny lone-star pin.
It's amazing how many New Yorkers recognize her, even though she's been out of office for eight years, even though she governed Texas for only four. Cops stop her in the street. She hears "You go, girl!" outside the Reebok Sports Club with startling regularity. Last year, when she found herself in the New York Presbyterian emergency room, she started signing autographs in triage.
"Hey, darlin', " she tells Thomas Murphy, the former head of Capital Cities/ABC, as she starts to wander the room. "Where's Bill Haber? I want to talk to him about my call-out radio show."
"Your radio show?"
"Sure!" Richards, 68, moved here in October, with a mandate to open up the New York outpost of an Austin-based communications firm, but her extracurricular life is a royal flush of possibilities. "I want to do a radio show where Liz Smith and I call out instead of gettin' called in."
Murphy says he can't help her with finding Haber, but he knows that John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is speaking this evening.
"At this cocktail party?" says Richards. "I'll be darned. I'm so happy to hear that. I was gonna ask him to do a little favor."
About fifteen minutes later, she spots Negroponte. He is imposing, balding, sporting a snazzy tie. She marches over.
"Hi, precious. How are you?"
He grins. "How are you?"
"I need a favor from you."
"I want to join the Council on Foreign Relations, and I have to have four really important people say that I'd be a good addition to that body."
Negroponte can't help himself. He starts to laugh. "Because you're shy, and you're retiring, and -- "
"So I'll tell you who's gonna write you," she says, ignoring him. "Mathea Falco -- "
"I'd be thrilled." Negroponte's still laughing. "Thrilled."
"You don't have to say -- "
"No, no, no!" he says. "I can talk about all the great things we did together. I think you'd enjoy it. The council's great."
Then the ambassador squeezes in a question of his own: "So . . . are you enjoying New York?"
"I love it!" she says. "Lo-ove it. I can look out my window and see exactly what's on Biography. And then the temperature comes on! So I have all I need." She gives him a valedictory peck on the cheek and spins on her heel. "I love him," she sighs as she tacks back toward the crowd. "He's such a pah-rince of a guy."
Defeat, in politics, is often a recipe for stasis and self-pity. For Richards, this was never the case. Curious, dynamic, and ravenously social, she has always had a certain genius for moving forward through the world. "Her father once described her as a worm in hot ashes," says Jane Hickie, a prominent Austin lawyer and one of Richards's oldest friends. "And as an older woman, nothing's changed."
In 1988, Richards landed on the national political map with a single, leveling utterance: "Poor George Bush. He cain't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." It was a quote that launched a thousand Nexis hits, a quote that transformed Richards, an obscure state treasurer, into an instant folk celebrity and fund-raising supermagnet. Just two years after uttering it in her keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, she became the governor of the country's second-largest state.
Many people thought 1990 would mark the beginning of the governor's long national political career. It didn't. Instead, she was defeated for re-election a mere four years later, and by none other than poor George Bush's son.
But as it turns out, Richards was born to be an ex-politician -- particularly an ex-politician in New York. When it comes to politics, Sinatra got it wrong: If you made it anywhere, you can make it here. Manhattan is a kind of Valhalla for former elected officials. They're extended all the privileges of public office -- status, respect, even power -- but without any of the encumbrances or social inhibitions. Richards never did well with social inhibitions. Public office, which lends an aura of grandeur to so many ordinary women and men, had the paradoxical effect of making Richards a much smaller version of herself.