LITTLE ROCK Ann Richards’ Texas, which opens the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival tonight, has a lot of local connections.
Jack Lofton, who for five years was executive director of the Little Rock Film Festival, co-directed the film with Keith Patterson. Eric Wilson, a Little Rock native who now lives in Washington, is a co-producer. Susan Altrui, who - among many other things - is the director of marketing at the Little Rock Zoo, is the movie’s executive producer. Gabe Mayhan is one of the cinematographers and Amman Abbasi composed the theme music. I’ve probably overlooked other members of the local film community who worked on the project. Sorry.
But that’s not why you ought to see the film. You ought to see Ann Richards’ Texas because it’s an entertaining and energetic film about an indomitable woman who is probably best known for her witty and feisty keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, the one who nominated Michael Dukakis (who eventually lost - decisively - to George H.W. Bush). Richards, who was the state’s state treasurer when she delivered the speech, was elected Texas governor two years later. (She died in 2006.)
While Richards’ speech was - and remains - an eloquent if plainspoken profession of Democratic faith, what most people might remember about Richards’ speech - a remarkable performance that serves as the film’s centerpiece - was her take down of Bush as an out of-touch elitist who, as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, hadn’t “displayed the slightest interest in anything” average Americans cared about.
“And now that he’s after a job he can’t get appointed to,” Richards says, “he’s like Columbus discovering America. He’s found child care. He’s found education.”
And now she pauses. And smiles at the delegates in the darkened hall.
“Poor George.” Another pause, to let the laughter and applause clear.
“He cain’t help it.” Another rest, to set up the crafted punchline.
“He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Every time I hear the line I think it might have been improved had she said “boot” instead of “foot.” But then again, one of Richards’ themes was the in authenticity of Bush’s claimed Texanhood. Richards wasn’t about to grant the carpetbagger even the affectations of a cowboy - in Milton, Mass., they wear wingtips, not Tony Lamas or Luccheses.
Since this is also an election year, people will be able to find a degree of resonance between the story of a liberal woman from what is now the reddest of states and the current campaign. But the film stirred up something nostalgic in me, for I met Richards and like to think I knew her, when she was the Texas state treasurer.
I didn’t live in Texas very long - less than a year - but it was during 1988. With some kind of naive faith in the possibilities of small-town journalism, I took a generous offer to run the news-gathering operations of a string of small semiweekly papers in the piney woods of East Texas.
I had convinced my Dallas based publisher that political coverage wasn’t something that should be sold by the advertising department. (Before I got there, the policy was that if a candidate bought at least two ads, he was entitled to an equal number of uncritical column inches in the newspaper itself. ) I instituted editorial pages in my papers: We took stands and endorsed candidates.
Which was why Richards traveled up from Austin to meet with me - she wanted to tell me all about Michael Dukakis. I don’t remember much about the substance of that meeting, but as odd as it seems in hindsight, there was some feeling that Dukakis stood a chance of carrying Texas in 1988. (That hope led him to eventually select Lloyd Bentsen, the patrician senator from Hidalgo County, as his running mate.)
Richards even arranged for Dukakis to campaign in East Texas - I met him at the airfield in Tyler and spent most of the day with him.
I also had an audience with Texas Gov. Bill Clements, and with George W. Bush, who pointedly told me over barbecue that he didn’t know if he had the stomach for public office, and that Richards’ insinuations about his dad’s lack of Texas credentials irritated him.
I’ve often heard people speculate how different America might have become had Barry Goldwater prevailed over Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential race. Personally, I wonder how different our recent history might have been had George W. Bush not run against and defeated incumbent Richards in a particularly ugly gubernatorial campaign in 1994, one that featured rumors about Richards’ sexuality.
Had Richards won, the younger Bush’s political career might not have been totally derailed, but his rise to the presidency would certainly have been deferred. And I have a suspicion that had Richards not been so tough on his father in 1988, W. might have been content as a self described “half broke oilman” with an interest in a professional baseball team.
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 10/12/2012
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