The best-known politicians from Texas in recent years have been such icons of conservatism that it’s almost startling to be reminded that, before 12 years of Rick Perry and four of George W. Bush, the state had a governor who was not only a Democrat but a progressive, and a popular one at that. And a grandmother. And a recovering alcoholic.

Her name was Ann Richards, and if she is remembered at all outside Texas, it is probably for a line she delivered about the 1988 Republican presidential candidate, the elder George Bush, as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention that year. “Poor George,” she quipped. “He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

But Richards, as Texas Monthly writer at large Jan Reid demonstrates in his savvy new biography, “Let the People In,” was more than the sharp-tongued granny she often played for the national press. She was among the first ardent feminists to gain high office, and for a time in the early 1990s, she was mentioned as a presidential candidate. But as fate would have it, Richards fell almost as quickly as she rose, swamped by the rising tide of Texas conservatism.

Hers is a darned good story, and Reid, a veteran of Austin literary and political circles, tells it with sympathy, insight and a deep knowledge of contemporary Texas politics. Richards was born poorish in 1933 and raised in Waco, a pretty girl and champion debater who married her high school sweetheart, a wealthyish intellectual named David Richards who went on to a long career as one of the state’s top liberal lawyers.

Like many women of her generation, all Ann wanted was a loving husband and a tidy house full of children, and “that’s what I did,” she once said. “And it just bored the living hell out of me. I was so bored, cooking and sewing and — you know, there were days when I spent the entire day ironing shirts.”

"Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards" by Jan Reid (Univ. of Texas Press)

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ann found two ways to escape this boredom — local politics and alcohol. David Richards was an active Democrat, and his work pulled her into a world of campaigns, demonstrations and organizing, first in Dallas and later in Austin. In the capital, the Richardses fell in with a hard-partying group of politicos and artists who constituted the core of a kind of ’70s-era Texas cultural renaissance: singers such as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker; writers such as Texas Monthly’s Gary Cartwright and especially the man who became Ann’s great love after her 1983 divorce, the late novelist and screenwriter Edwin “Bud’’ Shrake.

Scenes from this era are easily the book’s best, such as the time Walker, Shrake and Cartwright, masquerading as a mock athletic troupe known as the Flying Punzers, crashed into the Richardses’ bedroom late one night doing somersaults and similar bits of derring-do. Drugs were as prevalent as cicadas in Austin at the time, and Reid reports that Ann developed a serious love of marijuana — he writes that she once lit up while riding in a limousine with a Carter administration official. Her true vice, though, was vodka, which she downed in tall glasses for hours at a time.

The partying came to a sudden end after her family and friends staged a 1980 intervention, after which Richards landed in a Minnesota rehabilitation facility and swore off drinking and drugs the rest of her days. By then she was a popular county commissioner in Austin, winning election after her husband declined an opportunity to run and suggested that she try instead.

She was catnip for reporters, who could always count on her for a withering quote or off-the-cuff wisdom. For correspondence she deemed unworthy, she used a green rubber stamp emblazoned with a slang word for a certain barnyard byproduct. After reading “The Total Woman” (1973), which recommended that wives seek sex from their husbands at least every other day, Richards wrote in the margin, “Who needs an every other day kinda guy?’’

With her hair piled up in a snowy white pompadour that friends called Hi Yo Silver, this was the Ann Richards who climbed the Texas political ladder in the 1980s, taking her first statewide office, treasurer, in 1982, then transforming herself into such a sought-after speaker that she garnered that fateful invitation to deliver the 1988 convention’s keynote address.

The speech changed everything. She became friends with the likes of Lily Tomlin and Hillary Rodham Clinton. She wrote a book. In 1990 she was elected governor. Her first two years in office, Reid writes, were largely successful; the second two, because of a series of ethical scandals involving various aides and supporters, not so much. In 1994 George W. Bush, in his first lunge for statewide office, destroyed her, thereby avenging the damage she had done to his father with that “silver foot” remark.

This is a good book, even if it will appeal mostly to Texans. Reid had access to the entire Richards family and Ann’s correspondence with Shrake. It’s chock full of fascinating minor characters, especially the cantankerous onetime lieutenant governor Bob Bullock, one of Richards’s mentors and later a rival. When a hapless lobbyist, out of ideas to introduce a bill, asked Bullock what his best option was, Bullock purred, “Suicide.”

Richards died in 2006 before Reid could interview her, and while there are many nice moments that offer glimpses of her inner life, one never gains a keen sense of what made this woman tick. That she frequently felt overmatched by the demands of governing, and vulnerable to criticism, is clear. One of the book’s best moments comes after a gubernatorial debate in which her opponents derided her alcoholism. (Behind the scenes, they just as eagerly spread word that Richards was a lesbian; apparently not true.) Reid tells of Richards standing in an elevator, stunned into silence. Finally she turns to an aide and says, almost in tears, “I’m not a bad person.”

One can make the argument, and Reid certainly tries, that Richards deserves to be remembered outside Texas as a pioneering political figure. That’s probably true. Whatever her legacy, the state is certainly a bit duller without her.

Bryan Burrough , a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, is the author of “The Big Rich” and a co-author of “Barbarians at the Gate.”


The Life and Times of Ann Richards

By Jan Reid

Univ. of Texas. 467 pp. $27