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Ann Richards and Bob Bullock

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

Power and law consumed Austin’s first social tribe. Since 1839, politics was their poison. Their antics remain among the best shows in town.

Two books, both from University of Texas Press, examine compelling Austin political figures of the late 20th-century. Both are essential reading if you want to understand Austin’s culture and history.

Jan Reid’s 2012 “Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards” relies on the Texas Monthly reporter’s personal memories but also digs deep into the late governor’s complicated life. Richards served only one term, but had already become a national figure before taking that office and remains a fascinating subject for popular culture.

Holland Taylor’s play, “Ann,” for instance, has bowed on Broadway after a honorable run. I don’t expect it to disappear.

Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson’s 2008 “God Bless Texas: Bob Bullock” tries harder to project an aura of journalistic objectivity portraying the volcanic late lieutenant governor. McNeely, former longtime political reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, even refers to himself in the third person. Yet that studied sheen of objectivity does not undercut the authors’ prodigious research or crackerjack narrative style. They tell it like it is.

I read these books almost back-to-back because, although I lived in Austin and read the papers while both leaders were in power, I didn’t know either beyond a smile and a public handshake.

Richards and Bullock arrived on the scene as President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s eclipse of every other regional power source was on the wane. The big figures in that transitional period included John Connally, Ben Barnes and Dolph Briscoe. The two politicos from north of here — Richards from Waco, Bullock from Hillsboro — were drinking buddies with matched tempers, occasional allies and, eventually, uneasy rivals.

I wouldn’t want to be chewed out by either.

Both biographies tell us an enormous amount about Austin’s political culture beyond what we read in the newspapers because all three authors delved behind the scenes and witnessed much of what is rarely reported.

If Richards’ life and persona made a good one-actor play, Bullock would be harder to pin down in that format. His naked ambition, dark plotting and ultimate largesse are almost Shakespearean or operatic, sort of like an LBJ or a Nixon. Maybe a novel along the lines of “All the King’s Men” or “The Gay Place” could capture his contradictory character.

Anyway, I can’t recommend these books strongly enough. They belong on your Austin shelf.