Holland Taylor’s one-woman tribute, Ann, which Triangle Productions is staging through September 29, brought back memories of a politician I both criticized and admired. I covered Ann Richards and Texas politics during her last term as elected state treasurer and through her successful campaign for governor, writing and editing at Texas’s leading progressive magazine, The Texas Observer, probably best known here as the launching pad and lifelong forum for one of my predecessors, Molly Ivins.
Because I saw a preview performance, I can’t really review Triangle’s production, as star Margie Boule, who’s been getting raves, was understandably still settling into the part. But no production can save a scattered script that fundamentally lacks a story, real conflict (beyond the family drama of who gets paired with whom in the family game of Charades), dramatic structure or tension. It goes on too long and tries to end three times — none satisfactory and the last drearily bathetic, with Richards joining her mom and pop at the great ranch in the sky. The first and only play written by Taylor (an Emmy-winning TV actor best known for her roles in sitcoms Bosom Buddies and Two and a Half Men) to perform herself, it’s more like a character sketch an actor might prepare than an actual drama.
Ann gives us little understanding or even discussion of her life’s work or what motivated her not-politically correct (for most of Texas of her time) liberalism. After an expositional opening scene relaying her history through a college graduation address, Richards spends the next hour or so in a tedious series of phone calls: making travel arrangements, chatting with her old buddy Bill Clinton, micromanaging the family holiday gathering, dealing with reporters, reserving boats for a fishing trip, pondering a stay of execution for a developmentally disabled death row inmate, etc. Taylor’s apparent strategy is to show how Richards juggles the business of state as well as family duties through the multitasking that moms know so well.
“In fact, motherhood is splendid training for politics,” her friend and my colleague Ivins wrote in her obituary in our magazine. “All good mothers know what to do when there’s two kids and one cookie, and all good mothers know what to do when there are two kids in the back seat hitting each other, each one of them claiming the other one started it. All political problems are merely variations of those two situations.”
But the multitasking takes up most of the play. My date, who’s not from Texas, was mystified by what was at stake, why it mattered, and/or what obstacles and choices Richards faced. Such context is crucial to Taylor’s goal: imparting a sense of Richards’s character.
Originally subtitled “an affectionate portrait,” Ann comes off as shallow fangirl worship, unworthy of Richards’s substantive achievements political and personal. The script, which Taylor intended to praise Richards, winds up burying her greatness in trivialities. Instead of the powerful political leader she actually was, we get the kind of wisecracking celebrity she might have looked like from Hollywood.
In trying to show the vulnerability beneath Richards’s tart facade, Ann turns one of Texas’s toughest pols into a whiner she never was. When she chews out a staffer, it comes off more like a mom disappointed in her kid’s report card than the ass whuppings Richards reportedly delivered. (“If you stuck a broom up my ass I could sweep the floor, too,” she once snapped at an aide trying to get her to take a call. “But I can’t take the damn call right now.”) As my female companion said (and Richards herself might have cracked): it might barely be possible for Texans to elect a woman governor, but they’d never vote for a pussy.
Despite two years of research including interviews with friends and family, the Pennsylvania-born playwright (who met Richards only once) devotes more time to Richards’s inconsequential years in New York than any of her actual political battles in Texas. While I grinned at authentic Texanisms like “might could,” I rolled my eyes at mispronunciations of Texas names by an offstage secretary, and at intermission music by the likes of Helen Reddy and Neil Diamond rather than, say, Kinky Friedman or such Richards buddies as Willie Nelson or Lyle Lovett. And how many native Texans would utter a redundancy like “Rio Grande River”?
A Politician sans Politics
The quintessential politician I covered almost entirely avoids politics on stage. For this feisty warrior for progressive causes, who knew where the bodies were buried, the personal was political. A story that avoids the substance of that subject denies the essence of what made Richards, who died in 2006, significant. Taylor has airily dismissed such concerns by saying the show isn’t about politics or Texas, which is like saying that a show about, oh, let’s say Alexander Hamilton, isn’t about politics or America.
That’s a cop-out. Did Taylor think that the audience wouldn’t want to worry about politics? Not to say that being a mom isn’t important, nor that, as Ivins wrote, it didn’t contribute to Richards’s achievements. But it feels somehow demeaning to Richards’s own choices, and less than feminist (and Richards was a proud feminist) to focus so much on her traditional women’s role — and, over two-plus hours, so little on her actual political accomplishments. Would a story about a male governor do that?
“I did not want my tombstone to read, ‘She kept a really clean house,’” Richards said. “I’d like them to remember me by saying, ‘She opened government to everyone.’”
This isn’t just nitpicking by an erstwhile Texan who covered state politics. A meaningful Richards story for any audience must engage with her politics and her place because that’s where the drama is. It can no more leave Texas politics out of her tale than Richard III can omit ancient English dynastic politics, or Glengarry Glen Ross ignore the intricacies of real estate scams. By comparison, larger-than-life Texas politics should be a breeze.
Instead, Taylor seems more interested in anecdotes than in the big stories right in front of her: how such an outsider managed to outwit and outfight Texas’s toughest politicos, despite everything (alcoholism, feminism, liberalism) stacked against her; and how she managed the conflict, shared by Texas politicians from Sam Houston to Lyndon Johnson, between progressive ideals and the political realities of a pitiless state. Instead of tossing off a feel-good collection of one-liners and two dimensions, why not show her grappling with decisions like these, which would illuminate both her character and how progressives manage political reality?
It was tough. “She disappointed many liberals,” Ivins wrote, and our magazine was tough on her. Like any politician in America’s money-driven political system, she could sacrifice her principles (such as environmentalism) for political expediency, as when one of her major funders, a liberal developer, wanted to put a polluting golf course over a sensitive watershed. And after her defeat by “Shrub” (George W. Bush), instead of continuing to push progressive causes, Richards took a lucrative job with one of the nation’s top political influence firms in New York City, which Taylor’s script praises, while failing to mention that a major assignment was as a tobacco lobbyist.
In that sense, Richards’s story is really a tragedy — that not even someone so smart and well-intentioned could defeat the forces of evil; that she compromised her principles in the effort and that still couldn’t save her. But Ann wants it to be a triumph, and it feels false. No politician is perfect, and both the press and the playwright owe audiences — and history — the truth, not a politician’s varnished image. Complex truth makes for a richer character, and a better story.
Becoming an Icon
Actually, a good play about Ann Richards might end with her election as governor (a constitutionally weak office anyway), and chronicle the really dramatic part of her life: her transformation from an acidic, alcoholic, political hack into a genuinely inspiring, relatively progressive, trailblazing leader.
Richards’s reboot really began when she ran for county commissioner and then State Treasurer, the position she occupied when she made that speech at the Democratic convention. In that time and place, admitting her alcoholism and turning her struggle against it from a character flaw to a political virtue revealed courage rare in any leader, of any gender, anywhere.
I got to see Richards grow into that inspirational role when she moved into the decrepit state treasurer’s office in 1982, transforming what had been an antiquated fiefdom for rewarding political favors into an efficient, diversely staffed model bureaucracy. In a few years, she’d changed curly dyed-blonde bangs into that steely helmet — and herself into an effective leader who handled adversity not with bile but with humor and wisdom.
That Richards was inspiring, even to professionally skeptical journalists. Sure, her gubernatorial victory was helped by her Republican opponent’s missteps (e.g. equating rape with bad weather: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it”), which offended enough suburban conservative women to swing their votes to Richards. But she’d clearly developed the ability to rally a colorful coalition of Texans of all persuasions to her vision. (She could have offered Hillary Clinton advice about how how to deal with a rich, swaggering dimwitted opponent.)
I still remember her multicultural inauguration parade through downtown Austin to the domed Capitol, culminating in her hoisting a t-shirt reading “A Woman’s Place Is in the Dome.” Texas had never seen anything like it, and may not again for a few more years yet. That’s why many of us in Texas’s small progressive community backed her in the primary against her equally progressive and successful opponent. When you saw the people working for her — Latinos, African Americans, gay and disabled Texans — in the upper echelons of her campaign, and so many young people, well, it really did start to look like the kind of Texas I wanted to live in.
“In four years as governor,” her New York Times obituary noted, “Richards championed what she called the ‘New Texas,’ appointing more women and more minorities to state posts than any of her predecessors. She appointed the first black University of Texas regent; the first crime victim to join the state Criminal Justice Board; the first disabled person to serve on the human services board; and the first teacher to lead the State Board of Education. Under Richards, the fabled Texas Rangers pinned stars on their first black and female officers.”
Her election as governor proved a transient progressive victory. Although her term ended with a state budget surplus, a falling crime rate, rising educational standards, and a favorability rating over 60 percent, the moneyed interests soon turned their millions and their mendacity on Richards, populist progressive agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower (who refused to make the compromises Richards did, yet lost to the chemical lobby’s frontman, Rick Perry, anyway) and the rest. As in her first run for Gov, all her second Republican opponent needed to do was repeat platitudes and not shoot himself in the boot. Unlike her first opponent, who failed at both, even dim George Bush (guided by political puppeteer Karl Rove) was able to do that. Richards proved to be a generation ahead of her time.
In 1994, the year I left Texas, every statewide office rested safely in the hands of relatively progressive Democrats. The still-popular Richards’s re-election defeat that year marked a turning point. No Democrat has won statewide office since. Even without Rove’s God, Gays ‘n Guns campaign and notorious dirty tricks (including a shameful whispering campaign about lesbianism in her campaign and governor’s office), the toxic red tide was too much even for a governor as popular as Richards.
Her story is relevant again, as that tide is finally showing signs of receding, with the increasingly diverse state heading purple in the next decade or so, and its major cities (including three of the nation’s largest and one of its hippest) already blue. An actual lesbian has even been mayor of one them. And when Beto O’Rourke defeats Ted Cruz in November, I just wish Ann Richards could be there to smoke a victory cigar with him.
A political leader is more than a set of ideas or policy goals: she has to become someone who can rally others to her side. The Ann Richards who ran for state office somehow turned herself into that kind of inspirational leader. It’s a powerful story. Too bad it’s not the one we see in Ann. As Richards once said, “That dog won’t hunt.”
Ann continues through September 29 at The Sanctuary at Portland’s Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd.
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