President John F. Kennedy frequently told audiences: "There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third." Nobody in recent American politics ever did more with and for laughter than former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who sadly left these mortal precincts, altogether too soon, not quite three years ago.
I'll never forget her opening line as guest speaker at Washington's Gridiron dinner, where the assembled male guests are decked out in formal white tie and tails and most women wear long gowns: "So this is what y'all do on Saturday night up here. I can't imagine why anybody thinks you're out of touch ... "
The nation was introduced to Richards, then the Texas state treasurer, when she gave the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. With her signature Lone Star state twang, she tweaked that year's Republican nominee, the New England-born-and-reared vice president: "I am delighted to be here with you this evening because after listening to George Bush (Senior) all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like."
As the commencement speaker at Mount Holyoke College, she told the graduates that she came "from a short line of women governors," which included Texans Richards and Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson, who initially had run because her husband, Gov. "Pa" Ferguson, had been impeached.
The big issue of "Ma" Ferguson's governorship was a major controversy over whether children "were going to be punished for speaking Spanish in the public schools." According to Richards, Ferguson explained her position this way: "If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it (is) good enough for the schoolchildren of Texas."
In her 1994 losing re-election race against Republican George W. Bush, a campaign remembered for the disproportionate attention paid to the grave, and imaginary, threats to Texas gun-owners and the 'menace' of homosexuality to this proudly masculine state, Richards told the Legislature that she would veto a so-called right-to-carry law then being pushed hard by the gun lobby, which argued that the women of Texas would feel much more secure if they were able to carry a weapon in their pocketbooks.
In the heat of political battle, Richards, as reported by the late and great Molly Ivins, did not lose her sense of humor: "Well, you know that I am not a sexist, but there is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag."
There was much wisdom along with that wonderful wit. Speaking from her experience as the mother of four, she informed her audiences: "Let me tell you, sisters, seeing dried egg on a plate in the morning is a lot dirtier than anything I've had to deal with in politics." And as a former junior high school teacher, she put her political life in perspective: "Teaching was the hardest work I had ever done, and it remains the hardest work I have done to date."
She encouraged women to overcome the obstacles to political engagement, reminding her listeners: "Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels."
For straightforward perspective, Richards was tough to beat: "I'm really glad that our young people missed the Depression and the big war. But I do regret that they missed the leaders that I knew, leaders who told us when things were tough and that we'd have to sacrifice, and that these difficulties might last awhile. They brought us together, and they gave us a sense of national purpose."
Her state, her nation and her chosen profession of politics - and all of us lucky enough to know her personally - were all profoundly enriched by Ann Richards. In the dreary, humorless politics of 2009, we miss her more than ever.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.