by: Wayne Slater
AUSTIN — A new documentary about Ann Richards arrives this political season just as another woman is facing long odds and slaughterhouse politics in her bid to become the next governor of Texas.
For all the differences between then and now, the film offers some fresh reminders — and striking parallels for today — about how a woman got elected. And how four years later, she didn’t.
Greg Abbott, Wendy Davis’ Republican opponent, should take notes.
The HBO film, All About Ann, opened this month at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and premieres on the cable network at 8 p.m. Dallas time Monday.
It is a starry-eyed portrayal of Richards’ remarkable life, with a rich set of archival photos and film footage, some of it not widely seen before. There are interviews with famous people saying nice things: Bill Clinton, columnist Liz Smith, Henry Cisneros, Dan Rather, Willie Nelson.
The film opens with a vintage moment of Richards on stage at the 1988 Democratic convention, resplendent in a blue dress and that glossy confederacy of white hair. She delivers the line about George H.W. Bush that catapulted her to national attention: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Two years later, she was governor. But it wasn’t easy, as the documentary notes.
Remarkable footage of that 1990 race includes tough-guy TV commercials by her Democratic opponents about the death penalty. Attorney General Jim Mattox brags about executions he’s been a part of. Former Gov. Mark White walks among giant photos of the men killed under his tenure.
Supporters of Davis, this year’s Democratic nominee, will take heart not only at 1990 GOP opponent Clayton Williams’ miscues but also how the Richards campaign pressed the case to make her opponent unacceptable to women and moderate voters.
The Davis campaign is trying to do the same with Abbott — trumpeting his ill-conceived decision to invite Ted Nugent to campaign with him and denouncing Abbott allies who suggest women are “too busy” to worry about equal pay.
But Abbott supporters can take instruction from George W. Bush’s victory in 1994 — “She’s a liberal in a conservative state, and I’m a conservative in a conservative state,” a fresh-faced Bush declares in a clip that mirrors Abbott’s campaign today.
Bush treated Richards with respect while, at the same time, his team savaged her directly and indirectly. Karl Rove, Bush’s political guru from the governor’s race to the White House, is the film’s dark villain.
In this year’s race, Abbott’s political chief is Dave Carney, a one-time protégé of Rove.
“History repeats itself,” filmmaker Keith Patterson said Wednesday. “It’s a very timely story and everybody can take away from it what they want. It’s very relevant right now.”
Patterson and fellow filmmaker Phillip Schopper were in Texas this week to screen the film at a benefit for the Ann Richards School, a public school in Austin for girls from sixth to 12th grades.
“There are now people growing up who don’t even know who she is or haven’t heard of her,” Schopper said. “She was an extraordinary person, and I’d like to have people think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more extraordinary people in government?’”
Bush undid much of the Richards years. He dismantled her prison alcohol-treatment program, jump-started legislation to shield business from lawsuits and abandoned her historically high levels of appointing women and minorities to state boards and commissions.
But Don Carleton, who heads the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, says the fact that Richards even won in the conservative, machismo-washed environs of Texas politics was an accomplishment.
“Symbolism is important and she was a symbol to a lot of young women in this state,” Carleton said. “That was one of one of her great accomplishments — just getting elected against all odds.”