Ackmann: She Should Have Been President

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 - 15:17
This opinion piece ran in the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday, September 19, 2006.

By Martha Ackmann, Special Contributor

I voted for Ann Richards in three presidential elections.

She never was a candidate.

I'd go into the voting booth, look at my choices, think hard, shake my head, and then exercise my American right to name the person I believed in.

You could trust a woman who believed that the hardest job in America was not a CEO or secretary of state.

Ann Richards said that the most difficult job in the country was teaching junior high in public schools.

She'd been there, after all, teaching social studies at Fulmore Junior High in Austin long before she chose an easier road in life as governor of Texas.

Richards knew that if you could persuade 13-year-olds not to spit off a school balcony at classmates beneath them, then you had found a way to change the world.

Teaching the importance of civility, mediating difference by using words not fists and resisting the impulse to bully were essential lessons for the halls of Fulmore.

They weren't bad for the White House either.

I also respected the way Richards used her rear-view mirror. Not the one on her car. I mean the rear-view mirror of her life.

When she looked back, she seemed to do it with an unflinching eye and searched for meaning she could use. She spoke candidly about her battle with alcoholism and personal responsibility.

And she minced few words when she reflected on her earlier years as a Texas housewife.

Remember her dried egg remark?

"Let me tell you, sisters," she once said, "seeing dried egg on a plate in the morning is a lot dirtier than anything I've had to deal with in politics."

That was rear-view thinking, Richards-style.

Moving from kitchen sink to political platform in 27 words.

Now that she is gone, I worry that she will be remembered as a high-haired, tough-talkin', Texas wise-cracker.

Most of the recollections of the past few days have highlighted her "silver foot" remark, the phrase she so memorably directed at George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Democratic Convention.

And then there's that word "brassy" -- that keeps popping up to describe her opinionated point of view.

But Ann Richards was more than a sound bite.

And she knew that "brassy" was a code word for a woman viewed as speaking out-of-turn.

What I admired most in Ann Richards were her convictions: opening government to women and minorities, fighting violence, leading with humor and humanity rather than fear and arrogance.

For someone who appeared to be home-spun, she never confused straight talking with shallow thinking. Ann Richards knew her way around a metaphor.

She always had her eye on that dried egg and never let us forget who was left cleaning the plates.

Ackmann is a writer who teaches at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.