Yellow Rose of Manhattan

Texas panhandler: Richards with Mayor Bloomberg and fellow Texan Liz Smith at a Literacy Partners benefit.Photo: Patrick McMullan

“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.

Media circus: With Harvey Weinstein, Joe Armstrong, and Liz Smith at Le CirquePhoto: Courtesy of Liz Smith

“Ann has a really great sense of the outrageous,” says Molly Ivins, the syndicated columnist and all-around Texan ethnographer. “But in public office, she really had to keep it under control.”

Before she was elected county commissioner in 1976, Richards had achieved a kind of cult celebrity in Austin. She threw wild, margarita-soaked parties with her husband, David, and her well-placed zingers could bring cocktail chatter to a stupefied halt. Once, in the early seventies, Ivins attended a dinner party during which a male friend of theirs started to describe, in pointillist detail, the breasts of a young lady he’d just seen. The women at the table stared carefully into space, feigning deafness. A brief silence followed. Then Richards spoke. “Well, girls,” she boomed. “Have you seen any good dicks lately?”

“Ann may be a good politician,” says Mark McKinnon, the communications director for her first gubernatorial campaign, “but above all, she’s a performer. And I think that’s why she likes New York so much – she’s with all the good performers. You know the old saying: Politics is show business for ugly people. Now she’s with the good-looking people.”

When Robin Williams came here to do stand-up at Carnegie Hall, she had lunch with him and a few friends (including Billy Crystal) at Michael’s. Recently, at a charity auction, someone paid $35,000 to have lunch with Richards, Joy Behar, Sarah Jessica Parker, Liz Smith, and Bette Midler. At Oscar time, the governor went to the Four Seasons for a Harvey Weinstein bash honoring Judi Dench.

“I congratulated her on her nomination for Iris,” says Richards. “And then I talked to her about The Shipping News, because I loved that book, but I thought that the early part of the film didn’t work.”

You actually told her this?

“Yeah! But once her character came in, the film took on dimension.”

“I think she likes creative people, and creative people really love her,” says Jane Wagner, the writer, director, and partner of Lily Tomlin – and the author of the line about George Bush’s silver foot. “I’m convinced that if she hadn’t gone into politics, she’d have been a Broadway star.”

Of course, Richards always knew she wanted to move to New York. It’s the Austin of the East: vibrant, liberal, an endless cocktail surf. The year the Republicans reoccupied Washington – was George W. Bush stalking her? – seemed as good a time as any for Richards to abandon her lobbying gig at the D.C. firm of Verner Liipfert and head north. (“If you don’t take risks,” she likes to say, “you spend the rest of your life sittin’ on the porch, waitin’ for your children to come see ya.”)

“Ann’s a philosophy, really,” says Joe Armstrong, adviser to ABC News, fellow ex-Texan, and one of Richards’s closest confidants. “She’s come up with these secrets to living a good life.” Three years ago, he remembers, Richards lured him to a Bruce Springsteen concert. He wanted to know what possessed her, a grandmother of 65, to buy tickets. “It’s on my big list of things to do before I die,” she chirped.

Texans often have complex relationships with this city. Some of them – like Armstrong, like Dan Rather, like Tommy Tune, like Liz Smith – make the finest New Yorkers, dazzling people with their king-size personalities and twang-a-lang patois of missing g’s. In fact, two of these people – Armstrong and Smith – are Richards’s closest friends in Manhattan. (“Going to the theater with Ann is a real chore,” says Smith. “Everyone wants to talk to her and jump in her lap.”) But there’s another breed of Texan that seems wary of this city, if not outright contemptuous of it. Like our current president.

“Well,” says Richards, “years ago, people said that Lyndon Johnson was unhappy in the Kennedy White House because he was terrified he was gonna pick up the wrong fork. I don’t think it was true. But it was a way to describe the difference between the high-society Kennedys and the hardscrabble kind of guy that Lyndon Johnson was. So maybe it’s not that some Texans don’t like New York. It’s just that they’re afraid they might pick up the wrong fork.”

“Of course,” she adds, “I have not found that to be the case. This city has been absolutely fabulous to me.”

There are few office environments that can impress Ann Richards at this point in her life, and that includes the conference room we’re in now, even though its southern windows provide a spellbinding view of the city’s spires and Central Park. Richards doesn’t care. She can’t see past all the tchotchkes lining the windowsill.

“Goodness,” she says. “Look at this clutter. He should put it all in a closet.”

African statue heads, glass bowls, artifacts, Buddhas: Personally, I think they’re lovely, but then again, these tchotchkes belong to Bill Clinton, and it’s his Harlem conference room we’re admiring, so I’m not exactly thinking with rainwater clarity.

Richards turns to the aide who’s been walking us around. “All this stuff,” she declares. Stuff comes out in two syllables: stu-uff. “I don’t like stuff. Doesn’t he have somewhere to send it?”

The aide starts to explain.

“Thank God the University of Texas was willing to take my stuff as archive,” Richards continues. “So now I have a place to send it. I don’t want to see it.”

We walk into the main foyer. “Who is this right here?” asks Richards, staring at a photo near the entrance to Clinton’s office.

“Oh, you like that?” We whip around. It’s the president, trim and cheerful in a blue suit and cherry-red shirt. “Paul McCartney.” He gives Richards an audible smack on the cheek. “Hi, baby.”

“How are you, darlin’?”

“That’s McCartney – that’s Madison Square Garden when we did the benefit for the police and firemen. And this is the fiftieth anniversary of NATO … ” He spends the next five minutes guiding us through his personal photo gallery: of soldiers in Haiti, of John F. Kennedy in West Virginia, of Miles Davis in the boxing ring, staring insolently at the camera.

“Oh, wow,” Richards says as she admires them, one at a time. “Wow, wow.” Then she shakes her head, looks abruptly at Clinton, and gives him a gentle nudge on the arm. “Okay. C’mon. Let’s eat.”

Clinton grins. “I’ve been workin’ on the Middle East all day. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” He leads us through an open door. “Welcome to my office.”

It’s stunning, with the same spectacular view as the conference room.

“Here – you guys sit where you have the view,” says Clinton. He takes a seat at a fully dressed table, and we flank him on his left and right. Within minutes, the food arrives: collard greens, pecan-breaded chicken, dirty rice, a festive salad. “Oooooh, bless your heaaaart,” sings Richards. “I asked if we could have some greens.” Clinton explains it’s from Bayou, a Cajun joint on Lenox Avenue.

Richards nods, then picks up her fork. “Listen,” she begins. “I have to ask you something before you start talkin’. “

Clinton raises his eyebrows.

“I want to know about the Reynolds Foundation in Arkansas.”

He tilts his head. “The Reynolds Foundation … the Reynolds family that owns all the newspapers?”

“I don’t know.” Richards shrugs. “All I know is Baylor” – her alma mater – “is going to build a big science center, and they’re looking for foundation money.”

Clinton nods. “Did you see the picture of the two Roosevelts out there? The editor of the Reynolds newspaper gave me that.”

“Great,” says Richards.

“I’ll figure out how to get you into them.”

“Great,” she repeats.

Then the two of them launch into freewheeling and furious conversation. It’s dominated mostly by the president, but Richards doesn’t seem to care. They discuss books, Texas politics, the Civil War. Somewhere along the way, there’s a fifteen-minute disquisition on land mines, which Richards deftly transforms into a discussion about Lady Di. (“I think she would have worked through that phase she was in,” says Clinton, “in that damn car.”)

Then Richards steers the discussion toward more personal concerns: “Okay. So what do we think about this kid that Chelsea’s goin’ out with? I saw his picture, and he looks kinda cute.”The president looks startled. This probably wasn’t the sort of question he’d hoped to field in front of a reporter. “He’s real cute,” he says, after a second. “He’s a cute boy.”“And is he smart?” asks Richards.”Yeah,” says Clinton. “He was an all-American soccer player at Washington University at St. Louis, and … ” Boy, was he unprepared for this. “I took him to play golf in the Dominican Republic.” He laughs. “I like him. He’s a nice man. He’s a really … I like him.”Maggie Williams, his chief of staff, has been sitting silently at the head of the table the entire meal. She decides to jump to his rescue. “How did you two meet?””I don’t have any idea,” says Richards.”We met a hundred years ago, in the seventies,” says Clinton. “You’re lookin’ at 25 percent of the white vote that McGovern got in Arkansas and Texas, right here.””I was never hesitant about Bill,” says Richards. “Right after he got elected, he invited me to spend the night at the White House, which I was thrilled to death to get to do. The next morning, I got up, and I don’t know what the room was where you have breakfast and coffee … “”Oh – the solarium,” says Clinton.”Yeah. It was real nice. Anyway. Bill comes in, he’s in a hurry, he’s got to go somewhere, and he sits down and starts talkin’, drinkin’ coffee. So I said, ‘The purpose of me bein’ here, to tell you the God’s honest truth, is we need a new bridge across the Rio Grande, and I cannot get that sucker done to save my life. All I need to know is: Will you sign it if I can get the agency’s approval?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’ “She beams at him. “It took 30 agencies to approve. My ace card was that Bill had already said he’d sign it if we got all those other idiots to agree. And now there’s this ol’ bridge that’s bigger than God.”She pauses. ” ‘Course, Bush got to cut the ribbon.”They both keel over with laughter.”Broke my heart,” says Clinton. Richards wipes her eyes and has a look around his office. She notices another archipelago of tchotchkes lining the windowsill and gives it a baleful stare. “In the conference room,” she says, pointing to the offending display, “I said you needed to put that stuff in a closet somewhere. And you got more of it here than you do out there.””I sent most of my stuff home, to the library,” says Clinton, a trifle apologetically.”Well,” says Richards, “it’s time to send the rest of it.”Ann Richards’s critics would say that her only lasting political legacy was a worthy candidate for Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Her fans, like Ivins, say she managed to close the Texas state-budget deficit, build a new slew of prisons, and give the state its own lottery. Whatever the case, politics is scribbled into her DNA. At 19, she spent her honeymoon hanging campaign posters. When she was still a housewife, managing an unruly household of four children, she volunteered to manage the campaign of Sarah Weddington, who had argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, for the Texas State Legislature.Dorothy Ann Willis grew up in Waco, Texas. Her mother was a tough western woman who tended house and built everything herself; her father was a pharmaceutical salesman who amply provided for his only child, even during the Depression. Richards went to college on a debate scholarship – her parents always encouraged her to speak her mind – and told friends she married her husband, David Richards, because she loved his curiosity. David eventually became a prominent civil-rights lawyer, sweeping Ann into the heady, raucous social-political tide pool of Austin in the sixties and seventies. “She was real glamorous in our world,” says Hickie, who later ran her campaign for treasurer. “She threw the best parties anyone could ever imagine.”Richards first ran for county commissioner in 1976. She made quite a splash. Richards’s fund-raisers typically featured dog shows or skits she did herself. (One of her stock characters, the president of Porko Electronics, required a cigar and the donning of a pig nose for its proper incarnation.) “She was also a huge costume queen,” says Lily Tomlin, who sometimes performed at these events. “She’d always be dressing up as something controversial or humorous – like a box of Ritz crackers.”

“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.”

Armstrong, her date for the evening, slips away for a moment and then returns, elegantly proffering Richards a glass of water. “Here,” he says. “New York’s finest.”Richards takes it. Her eyes bounce along the crowd. “I want to say hi to Liz.”With that, she vanishes, and begins effortlessly working the room. She finds Smith. (“God, girl, you got on your negligee! This is goooood!”) She talks to Evelyn Lauder. (“I haven’t read the Estée Lauder story in the Times. Is it true? Is it good?”) She chats with Patricia Duff, ex-wife of Ron Perelman, whose lime-colored cocktail dress fits her like a second skin. (“We-ell. You’re looking pert.”)Then she wanders off to chat with someone I don’t recognize. She returns a moment later. “Wanna meet Nora Ephron?” Before I can answer, a photographer asks if he can take her picture. Then a couple she’s never met comes over to ask if she’s seen Elaine Stritch’s one-woman show. Richards says she’s going next week.”She’s a very talented lady,” says the wife. “Thank God she got off the booze. It saved her life.”Richards rolls her eyes. “It saved a lot of our lives.”The pair looks slightly taken aback. “You’ve got a good Texas accent,” says the man when he recovers. “I’m not the one with the accent,” says Richards. “You’re the one with the accent. It’s all in the ear of the hearer.” She gives them a smile and heads to the main dining room. “Nice to see y’all.” Alcoholism runs in ann richards’s family, essentially in the same zigzag course as a lurching drunk. She started drinking beer as a teenager and moved as she got older in a steady crescendo toward stiffer and stiffer swill – scotch-and-waters, then gin-and-tonics, then gin martinis, then vodka martinis. Richards drank through her first four years in public office and almost the entirety of her marriage. She didn’t quit until one Sunday morning in 1980, when a friend called, claiming to be in crisis. Richards drove over and found her husband, confidantes, and two oldest children, ages 18 and 20, sitting in a circle in her friend’s living room.”Each one of them had a statement prepared,” she says. “And, um, each statement had to end with the phrase, I know you would not have done that if you had not been drinking. I was so traumatized. So totally traumatized. Because of course, what’s goin’ through your mind is, Well, you bunch of hypocrites! You were all drinkin’ there with me.“Her anger didn’t last long. By the end of the afternoon, she agreed to fly to St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis for help. She was county commissioner at the time. When she returned, she decided the best way to deal with her absence was candor.”Actually, I was more afraid I wasn’t going to be funny anymore,” she says. Long pause. “That’s a huge thing. Not having a sense of humor. Not doing zany stuff.” While in rehab, she was also forced to contemplate the insidious effects her drinking might have had on her family. All four of her kids came up to visit during family week. “We played this game,” she says. “The alcoholic stands there, and the others put you in a statuelike stance to express how they see you. My children put me in a chair with my arms up and my fists like this.” She strikes the pose of a champion middleweight. “I had spent all my life being the perfect wife, mother, community leader, nurse, chef, whatever. So, of course, I was the strong one. And I wanted out of that chair. Absolutely. I didn’t want to have that relationship with my kids.”Another long pause. “I don’t know how not to be formidable,” she eventually adds. “I’d love it if I were not so in charge. But I don’t know any other way to be.”Richards and her husband divorced just a few years later. Today, the governor is seeing Austin-based sportswriter Bud Shrake. “In a couple,” says Ivins, “it adds a lot of pressure when one sobers up and the other keeps drinking. And David, bless his heart, was there for political purposes for I don’t know how long while the marriage was quite over. He’s a terrific guy.”This morning, Ann Richards is sitting in the sun-saturated library of the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, fielding questions from high-school seniors.”Have you ever thought of running for president?” asks a girl in a ponytail.”Truly, I have not,” says Richards.”Because I read in a magazine that women can’t be president,” says the girl. “Because they get their periods.”Richards’s large-caliber eyes get even wider. “Well, I don’t believe I’d take that magazine anymore.” The teachers in the room laugh. The girl persists.”No, no. Because, like, if you get your period, you might do a wrong decision.”“So,” says Richards, folding her arms, “do you think having your period affects the brain?” “No,” the girl answers.”Has it affected your brain?””No.””It hasn’t affected mine either,” she says. “I think Hillary Clinton gets a period.”The girls sit and consider this.”In a way,” she says, “it’s interesting you raise that question. Because people will use a lot of excuses to keep women down. Reaaaally stuuuupid stuff.”She looks around the room. “When I was your age, my God – the only thing I could think of was gettin’ married, havin’ a family, havin’ a little house with a dog and a cat,” she says. “It worked that way. But it’s not what I thought it was gonna be. And I want you to know, I love children – I’ve got four of ‘em, and seven grandchildren now. But I also have a life other than raising children. Those babies are cute as they can be, but they are booooooooring. You know, it just consists of spoonin’ the applesauce in the mouth. Spoonin’ the cereal in the mouth. Cha-ange the diaper. Pa-at the back. Pray that it will sleep for a little while.”When the opportunity came along for me to run for office, it was really a startling thing,” she continues. “I realized I was the one who was gonna have to work. I was gonna have to put the money in the bank. And thank God I realized that.”Because now,” she says, smiling broadly, “I have enough money. I can travel all over the world and see wonderful things. And,” she adds, thumping her fist softly on the desk in front of her, “I can move to New York when I’m 68 years old.”

Yellow Rose of Manhattan