Thursday, July 18, 2013

Born With a Silver Foot in His Mouth

"I'm a grandmother now. And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lily. And when I hold that grandbaby, I feel the continuity of life that unites us, that binds generation to generation, that ties us with each other. ... And as I look at Lily, I know that it is within families that we learn both the need to respect individual human dignity and to work together for our common good. Within our families, within our nation, it is the same."

Ann Richards
July 18, 1988

It was on this night 25 years ago that I first heard of Ann Richards.

That was probably true of most Americans who lived outside Texas, and, frankly, I expected most Americans to be oblivious to things that were happening in Texas, but I really felt that didn't apply to me.

You see, Texas was always a second home to me when I was growing up. It is where my grandparents lived, and my family came here two, three, sometimes four times a year. When we were here, I read the local papers. I watched the evening news. I listened to the adults' conversations about current events. I always felt like I was on top of what was happening in Texas.

Then, after I finished work on my bachelor's degree and began working for newspapers in Arkansas, my parents returned to Texas, and I continued to visit the state two, three, even four times a year.

I believed I had been keeping up with developments in Texas pretty well — until this night in 1988. That was when I realized that I really didn't know as much about what was going on here as I thought.

It was on this night in 1988 that Richards delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention. She was the two–term state treasurer in Texas, and word was that she was planning to run for governor in 1990. The keynote address was intended to give her some additional exposure in her buildup for the campaign.

This was of interest to me because, by mid–July of 1988, I had made the decision to move to Texas and work on my master's degree at the University of North Texas. If Ann Richards was going to be a candidate for governor, I decided, I wanted to see her in the national spotlight. It would tell me a lot about her ability to handle pressure.

What did I think?

Well, I thought it was one of the finest convention speeches I have ever heard. There were a couple of times when Richards appeared a little shaky, a little nervous, but she shook it off and, more often than not, delivered an effective zinger.

Like this one about patrician (and somewhat gaffe–prone) Vice President George H.W. Bush: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Only Richards — who earlier told her audience she was especially happy to be speaking that night "because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like" — pronounced the word help as "hep."

And can't became "cain't" when Richards spoke.

Take it from me. That is authentic Texan.

It was an important speech, more crucial to Richards' political career than it was to the success of the Democratic ticket that year. But, looking back on it, I am struck by how much her complaints about the incumbent administration sound like the complaints from subsequent keynote speakers in both parties — and, consequently, both by how much and how little has changed in the last quarter of a century.
"They've tried to put us into compartments and separate us from each other. Their political theory is 'divide and conquer.' They've suggested time and time again that what is of interest to one group of Americans is not of interest to anyone else. We've been isolated. We've been lumped into that sad phraseology called 'special interests.' "

Richards was a true Texan. She reminded me of my mother, who was a native Texan as well, and she used the kind of phrases my mother used — such as "tell how the cow ate the cabbage."

(I'm not sure of the origin of that one, incidentally. I can say only two things: 1, I believe it began as a Southern expression although it may be in use in other regions as well, and 2, based on how my mother used it, I concluded that it means the speaker is telling the absolute truth about something.)

I liked Richards' plain–spoken nature. She kind of seemed like a female Harry Truman, someone who wasn't afraid to say what she believed. She was blunt. She just wasn't as salty as he could be.

When she ran for governor a couple of years later, she was elected. I was proud to vote for her. I wasn't living in Texas when she sought a second term and lost (to George W. Bush) in the Republican wave of 1994, but I would have voted for her again.

All of that was still in the future on this night 25 years ago. In 1988, Ann Richards spoke to a TV audience in the millions with poise and charm. If she was nervous, she didn't show it. And she had plenty to be nervous about. She was only the second woman to give a keynote address at a Democratic convention, as she herself observed.

(In so doing, she borrowed a six–year–old line from a comic strip — "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels!")

There was a real honesty in her words, the kind of honesty we could use today.

"[W]hen we get our questions asked, or there is a leak or an investigation," she said of the incumbent administration, "the only answer we get is, 'I don't know,' or 'I forgot.'

"But you wouldn't accept that answer from your children," she said with a sly grin. "I wouldn't. 'Don't tell me you don't know or you forgot."

(That's the kind of response I could have expected from my mother if I tried to get away with saying I didn't remember or I forgot something.)

Then she cut to the chase. "We're not going to have the America that we want until we elect leaders who are going to tell the truth; not most days but every day; leaders who don't forget what they don't want to remember."

When she spoke, she had the same kind of character that all the women in my family had. She said that she was glad the young people of that time didn't have to experience the hardship and sacrifice of the Depression and World War II. It was the kind of thing I could hear my own mother or my grandmothers say, and I agreed with her; I, too, was glad that most of the people who were under 50 at that time had no memory of those things.

"But I do regret that they missed the leaders that I knew," she said, "leaders who told us when things were tough and that we'd have to sacrifice and that these difficulties might last for awhile. They didn't tell us things were hard for us because we were different or isolated or special interests. They brought us together, and they gave us a sense of national purpose."

I'm sorry we missed those leaders, too.

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