116 Minutes With Cecile Richards

Photo: Joe Corrigan/Getty Images

Cloaked in a zebra-print makeup cape, ­Cecile Richards is sitting in a brightly lit dressing room and having a hard time finishing her sentences. This is partly because she keeps stiffening her upper lip so a staffer for The Rachel Maddow Show can paint and pencil it, and partly because her mind is elsewhere: She’s about to go on-air to continue fighting the biggest battle she’s faced since joining the Planned Parenthood Federation of America as president in 2006. “It’s kind of a whole new deal,” she says. “I mean, the fact that they would hold up the federal budget over birth control”—she ­pauses—“or ­women’s … I think that was …”

It is now just past 9 p.m. on a day Richards began with a 3:45 a.m. wake-up call, a 6 a.m. flight from New York to D.C., then nearly four straight hours of satellite-radio interviews. (“I love that brush—it feels great,” she exclaims to the makeup artist. “I feel like I could just take a nap.”) The Maddow appearance will not be her last appointment. “We’ve got a ten o’clock call tonight because we’ve got our big vote tomorrow—obviously, the big vote tomorrow.” The big vote, of course, will determine whether the govern­ment eliminates Planned Parenthood’s federal funding—and though the bill is predicted to die in the Senate (and does), Richards and her team have been endlessly canvassing the Hill, just to be sure.

Now there are two blasts of hair spray and the snap of the zebra cape being removed, and Richards emerges in the political armor of a perfect navy-blue pantsuit, heels, and brooch. It is the outfit of someone who’s spent decades learning the system: as a labor organizer; as the co-founder of America Votes, an umbrella group that focuses on voter turnout; as deputy chief of staff for Nancy Pelosi; and, most of all, as the daughter of the late Ann Richards, the former activist, feminist, and governor of Texas. “I swear to God,” Richards says, “almost every day someone comes up to me and says, ‘What would your mother say? Would she believe that this is happening?’ I mean, she really was my touchstone for pretty much everything.”

After a flurry of BlackBerry checking, she leaves to wait in another room. On-air, Richards paints a scene from the previous week: “You see the Speaker of the House, the third most powerful man in America, literally phoning the president, the head of the free world, and we’re on the verge of shutting down the federal government over whether or not Planned Parenthood can continue to provide Pap smears.” It is her talking point of talking points: Planned Parenthood is about Pap smears, not abortion; routine women’s health care, not ideological crusading.

But when she returns to the greenroom to meet back up with me and her communications vice-president, Stuart Schear, the Richards of sound bites and magenta upper lip has vanished. “So are you guys ready to take off?” she asks, giddy. “It’s really creepy and dark in there.”

In the lobby, she crosses paths with a heavy man in a suit, tie removed—Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. “Hi. Cecile Richards with Planned Parenthood.”

“Oh, hi,” says Frank, shaking hands, then staggering past as we walk on.

Schear waits a few seconds before noting how tired Frank looked.

“Yeah,” Richards says. “He did. A little under the … under something.”

We pile into a black SUV to head to the bar at Zentan, an upscale Pan-Asian restaurant, but Richards can’t relax quite yet: It’s ten o’clock, time for that end-of-the-day strategy call. Based on Planned Parenthood’s internal projections, they’ll have Senate votes in the mid-fifties. Ann Richards used to play bridge on Election Day, feeling that by then she’d done what she could. Cecile Richards will be working tomorrow, but she is now feeling good enough to let the conversation veer toward The Colbert Report.

At the lobby lounge outside Zentan, Richards’s husband, Kirk Adams (they met while working as organizers), joins us. Richards orders a glass of red wine, but the lounge isn’t serving food at this hour. Schear, after a lengthy search, forages some peanuts from the nearest CVS. “Stuart! A Renaissance man,” she says. “You’re so sweet.” Richards tells me that her son, about my age, is also named Daniel; ­eventually she calls me “young Dan.” The talk returns to family, and again to Richards’s mother.

“She used to quote Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Richards says. “This is not exactly right—it’s definitely a bad paraphrase—but it was something like: ‘Life isn’t one thing after the other. It’s the same damn thing over and over again.’ I think some of these fights were probably just destined to go on for time immemorial.”

Richards shows me a ring on her right hand: a huge oval aquamarine. “This is my mother’s ring. Whenever I’m doing something like this, where it’s like Rachel Maddow or I’ve got to go on a heavy-duty lobby thing or something, it’s sort of like … I just channel Ann Richards.”

She pauses, then straightens a bit. “But yeah. I don’t really believe in luck. I’m a vote-counter. I believe in counting votes.”

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116 Minutes With Cecile Richards