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Yellow Rose of Manhattan

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"There have always been outrageous women in Texas," says Mary Beth Rogers, Richards's former chief of staff. "I mean, my God. They were out there doing everything under the sun: ranching, building communities, establishing schools."

They say that Texas produced the first American sex symbol. (The Naked Lady of Nacogdoches -- she wore a flesh-colored body stocking and rode a horse across the stage.) The state also produced its fair share of girl outlaws (like Bonnie Parker) and rock-and-rollers (like Janis Joplin). And in the past 25 years, all five major Texas cities -- Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston -- have had female mayors at one point or another.

So Texas was ready for a female governor in 1990, as momentous as Richard's candidacy was. A Democratic governor, however, was another matter.

"It's sort of a testament to her character that she was ever elected," says McKinnon, who, as sometimes happens in politics, now works as an informal media adviser to the man who defeated Richards -- George W. Bush. "This is a conservative state."

Indeed. When 1994 came along, southern conservatives were running on a platform of God, gays, and guns. Back at Richards's campaign headquarters, someone came up with a morbid idea for a contest. You had to drive through east Texas with a certain bumper sticker and see if you made it back alive: I'M THE QUEER ANN SENT TO TAKE YOUR GUN AWAY.

The Republican rumor mill was also spewing noxious smog about Richards -- about being popular among lesbians, about her partying days in the seventies. "If Ann had a secret hate," says Liz Smith, "I'd say it's Karl Rove. I think he was the agent of her destruction, spreading all those rumors. She says she was beat fair and square, but I wonder if she believes it."

Throughout her tenure, Richards also discovered that politics was a great deal meaner than she'd ever imagined. "Every single, solitary day," says Hickie, "for four years, she got to open up the paper and see what rotten thing Karen Hughes had to say about what she'd done. That was her job -- to attack Ann Richards." She pauses. "She may seem it," Hickie finally says, "but Ann isn't tough as nails at all. She's as sensitive as anyone I've ever known."

Today, Richards claims not to miss politics. "Sometimes I hear people who once served in office, and they still talk about it a lot," she says. "I don't. I've often thought I didn't want it badly enough. When I lost, I didn't mourn for more than five seconds."

After she was defeated for governor, Richards made another list of the things she wanted to do. She wanted to work. Learn new things. Travel for fun. Improve the world. She also wanted to finally make some money. "I don't want to end up in a trailer at the end of my daughter's driveway," she says. "I don't want my children to be financially responsible for me. They may have to wipe drip off my chin. But it's not gonna cost 'em."

Shortly after her defeat, she took a lobbying job in Washington. Though she liked the men at her law firm, the job sometimes involved representing unsavory clients, like big tobacco. "My impression was she wasn't delirious doing that kind of lobbying," says Smith. "But she would never criticize them. She was really dummied up."

Richards's work at Public Strategies is quite different. For one thing, it's much more social. She's the head of an office now, which means lunching and schmoozing with lots of prospective clients. ("A lot of what she's done in New York hasn't been transactional," admits Jack Martin, the company's chairman, "but establishing that we, well, exist.") The clients of crisis-communications firms also don't want their names in the papers, which means Richards won't identify most of them, save for the well-publicized ones, like Firestone. I ask what they get from her. She shrugs, as if the answer were self-evident: "I can get anybody I need on the telephone."

Richards also says she's serious about finding a broadcaster for her radio-show idea, in which she and Liz Smith would call all the people they know and reminisce. "Liz is the best at this I've ever seen," she says. "She can tell you what Sinatra was drinking on the night they were at the Cipango Club before it closed in 1943."

Would they ever call unfamous people, like David Letterman does, just for fun?

"Oh, no!" she answers. "I'm not that slick. I've just lived a long time."

A voice-mail message, left shortly after six one evening this spring: Jennifer? It's Ann Richards. You remember we were talkin' about the difference between Texas and New York? I just ran across a wonderful song title in Waylon Jennings's obituary, and, uh, I think it is really, really on point: 'Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for L.A.' On Epic Records. Isn't that great? Okay. I'll see you sometime next week. I don't know when. Bye.

In the foyer of the Pierre hotel, a man comes up to Richards, blurts out his admiration for her latest star turn on Larry King, and wanders away.

Did she know that guy?

"No. Did you?"

We're standing on line, waiting for our coat-check tickets at a Drama League dinner honoring Liz Smith. Richards has shown up late. She surrenders her coat, walks up the steps to the main ballroom, and sighs. "I thought we were going to miss the drinking. I always miss it if I can."


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