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Leading Texas Republican Anne Armstrong

At the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Anne Armstrong became the first woman from either party to deliver a keynote address.
At the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Anne Armstrong became the first woman from either party to deliver a keynote address. (Associated Press)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Anne Armstrong, 80, a strong-willed Texas Republican who helped run a working cattle ranch, championed women's rights and served as the United States' first female ambassador to Britain, died of cancer July 30 at a hospice in Houston.

During the 1970s, Mrs. Armstrong was one of the most prominent women in the Republican Party, became the first woman to address the Republican National Convention as a keynote speaker and was mentioned as a vice presidential prospect.

She was an influential adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and in 1987 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award.

More recently she was in the news when Vice President Cheney visited her South Texas ranch to hunt quail in 2006 and accidentally shot and wounded his hunting companion, Harry Whittington.

When Armstrong was ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1976 and 1977, the New York Times reported that the British had "taken an instant liking to her . . . because she is visible and direct and informal without turning informality into a cloying down-home soupiness."

She also became the first U.S. ambassador to visit Northern Ireland -- "jumping out of her bullet-proof Cadillac," The Washington Post reported, "to talk with citizens on embattled ground."

Even though she ordered several hats from Halston that she dubbed the "ambassadorial version of the Texas broad-brimmed Stetson," she worked hard at overcoming stereotypical notions of wealthy, right-wing Texans.

She was born Anne Legendre in New Orleans, home of her father's French Creole ancestors, and was educated at the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, where she was president of the student body and valedictorian of the Class of 1945. She received her bachelor's degree from Vassar College in 1949.

Before taking a job as an editorial assistant at Harper's Bazaar, she paid a visit to the vast King Ranch in South Texas as a house guest of Helenita Kleberg, her classmate at Foxcroft and Vassar. There she met Tobin Armstrong, the owner of a ranch adjoining the King spread and scion of a prominent Texas ranching family. The two married four months later.

She moved to the ranch, a 50,000-acre sprawl of mesquite and prickly pear brush country near the Gulf of Mexico, where she presided over a magnificent adobe homestead worthy of Edna Ferber's "Giant" and kept the books for the Armstrong business interests.

Although she had volunteered in Harry S. Truman's 1948 presidential campaign, characterizing herself as a liberal Democrat, she became a Republican shortly after moving to the ranch, deciding that she "was ideologically not at home in the Democratic Party."

She confined herself to local politics while her children were young and became a member of the state Republican Executive Committee in 1961.

She gained national prominence in 1968, when she became a Republican National Committee member from Texas. In 1971, Nixon proposed that she and Delaware committee member Thomas B. Evans join Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas as co-chairmen of the RNC.

The selection of Mrs. Armstrong, the first woman to be co-chairman rather than assistant chairman, was intended in part to mollify Texas Republicans unhappy with Nixon's nomination of former Texas Gov. John B. Connally as secretary of the Treasury.

Connally, a Democrat at the time, later became a Republican presidential candidate.

As co-chairman of the RNC and presidential adviser, Mrs. Armstrong supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and announced that Nixon was interested in appointing women to important positions.

At the 1972 Republican National Convention, she was the first woman from either party to deliver a keynote address. Appealing to Democrats who disapproved of the liberal, anti-war policies championed by their party's presidential nominee, George McGovern, she urged them to find refuge in the Republican Party. In her speech, she said, "The sudden storm of McGovern has devastated the house of Jackson, of Wilson, Roosevelt and Kennedy, and millions of Democrats stand homeless in its wake."

At the beginning of Nixon's second term, Republican women's groups complained that the president had not lived up to his promise to appoint more women. Mrs. Armstrong also expressed disappointment. In December 1972, she was named counselor to the president, the first woman to hold the post.

As counselor, Mrs. Armstrong founded the first Office of Women's Programs in the White House. Fluent in Spanish, she was Nixon's liaison to Hispanic Americans and was a member of a Cabinet committee on opportunities for Spanish-speaking people.

During the Watergate crisis, she was an outspoken defender of the president. Not until the release of the tapes directly implicating Nixon in the coverup did she call for his resignation.

After Nixon left office, she stayed on as counselor in the Ford administration until November 1974, when she returned to the ranch. In recent years, she was appointed a Kenedy County commissioner.

Her husband died in 2005.

Survivors include five children, John Barclay Armstrong II, Sarita Hixon and Tobin Armstrong Jr., all of Houston, Katharine Love of Austin and James L. Armstrong of Upperville; 13 grandchildren; and a sister.


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