WALTHAM, MASS. — 'Politics is a white-male game and it's hard, hard, hard for others to learn it," Ann Richards is telling her audience - 150 spellbound undergraduate students in a packed university lecture hall.
The former Texas governor has traveled from Austin to Boston to share gleanings from her 40 years' labor in America's political vineyards. With arms crossed over her navy-blue, pin-striped power suit, her trademark silver bouffant hairdo floating above, she's dishing out feisty observations that are both inspiration and reality check to young men and women with a gleam in their eye for politics.
Having thrived in the cauldron of Texas politics, "Professor" Richards is now offering a "tell it like it is" analysis of the nuts and bolts of political power - as well as living proof that a savvy woman really can beat the good ole boys at their own game.
Power is the subject of today's lecture, part of a course on American politics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "What it is, how to get it, how to exercise it." Richards wears the mantle of an elite female politician discreetly, though she broke Texas's political gender barriers and raised four children along the way.
"When I say the acquisition of power and the use of it is ... a white-male game, I say it without any rancor," she drawls genially. She adds with a twinkle: "My two sons are white males and I like them just fine."
Humor has always been Richards's most effective weapon. Just remember her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, when she quipped that "poor" George Bush was not clued in to Americans' needs because he was "born with a silver foot in his mouth."
But she's blunt: "This isn't fairy-tale time," she reminds her audience, jarring any naifs who may have forgotten that politics is a serious game indeed.
"I still meet a lot of very young people who think if they are able to share a few minutes with me, I am going to drop my bag of magic beans with [political] success written all over it," she says.
"I am so sorry to have to disabuse you of that notion," she continues. "The higher up the ladder you go it is all the same.... There's no mystery. No secret. There is only ... determination and keeping on when everyone else has run home to mama."
Trade-offs and compromise
Richards was elected governor of Texas in 1990, the first woman in that post since Miriam "Ma" Ferguson more than a half-century earlier. To get there required more than just hard work, she emphasizes. It required an intimate understanding of the levers of power - the accommodations, trade-offs, and compromises by which to acquire more power - and the determination to use it.
"I've spoken with a lot of women who think that power is a bad thing," she says. "I want you to see that power is not a bad thing. But having the power and not using it is a total waste. You have got to be willing to step up and use the power - not just acquire it."
She reads excerpts of a Lyndon Johnson biography detailing how the master politician used back-room bargaining to ram civil-rights legislation through Congress. She tells her own story of projecting the image of power by "scripting minute-by-minute" her first day as Texas state treasurer in 1976. It was a time, she writes in a biographical note, when "Texas was not noticeably hospitable to the notion that a woman could handle that kind of responsibility."
Like Ann Richards and Bill Clinton, most career politicians begin considering the possibility while undergraduates, according to those who have studied the political process.
Having a role model like Richards for undergraduate women is key to getting young women interested in a political career, according to Brandeis political scientist Jytte Klausen.
But few colleges and universities in the United States offer programs that include that first-hand experience up close and personal, says Tobi Walker of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
More women are entering state politics than at anytime in the nation's history. Women's numbers in Congress surged in 1992, though it is unclear whether their ranks will grow in the coming midterm elections from 59 - or in the long term.
An annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles reported last fall that only 17.8 percent of freshmen women were interested in getting into politics.
Some say colleges need to do more to help prepare women who aspire to political careers.
"Obviously there has been a tremendous growth in classroom learning and scholarship around women in politics in colleges across the country," Ms. Walker says. "But it needs to be combined with skills and empowerment."
Sharper focus on women
Richards's lectures are open to both sexes. Brandeis has added visits by other women politicians, like former US Rep. Pat Schroeder, to sharpen the focus on women, says Professor Klausen. The Brandeis experiment is one of only a few by US colleges aimed at encouraging women to consider a political career.
After Richards's lecture, Marina Sokolinsky, a senior majoring in political science, says that Richards is a huge inspiration.
"I think having her here is wonderful for women at the university," Ms. Sokolinsky says, adding that she's considering politics as a career. "She has experienced everything."
Richards is also a human being - not merely an icon. She was defeated in 1994 in a hard-fought race with the son of the man with the silver foot in his mouth.
Now, true to her words in class, she is cashing in as a Washington lobbyist. She has denied any intention to run for higher office.
After class, in an interview, Richards remembers the higher idealism that got her into politics in the first place. During her grandmother's lifetime, "the only people denied the right to vote in Texas were idiots, the insane, and women," she recalls.
"A lot of us [women] got into this business of politics because we had to change the laws," she says. "There are a lot of reasons women don't chose to go into politics. It's a rough game. But I still think was worthwhile. It's been a good ride."
Training Programs for Women
Brandeis University is among several colleges offering courses to help prepare women for political careers. Only a few have full programs, including:
Center for the American Woman and Politics - Eagleton Institute of Politics
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Fax (732) 932-6778
The Women's Campaign School at Yale University
P.O. Box 686
Westport, CT 06881
Fax (203) 854-0614
The Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics
Iowa State University
309 Catt Hall
Ames, IA 50011