In his first interview since that day, he told this paper that crime was the most serious challenge we face as a nation. This week, the President sits down for a moment to tell Newsday, why this country should have a female President, what his childhood days were like, why we need to preserve historical landmarks like the Boissiere House and Nelson Island, what his relationship with his wife Jean is like, and why there’s never a dull moment in the life of a president.
George Maxwell Richards, this country’s fourth President, remembers the moment clearly. He was sitting at his home in Maracas, St Joseph when the phone rang. It was the Prime Minister.
“I was in blissful retirement and had only just retired. In fact, I was enjoying my retirement when I got the call. It was an informal call,” he says. At the time he remembers being in the middle of some reading. He was asked if he would let his name go forward as a nominee for the Presidency.
“I was invited by the PM to accept nomination...I took some time to reflect,” he says of that life- changing phone-call. “Eventually I (later) agreed I would let the name go forward.”
Richards is the first President to not have a legal background. Asked if he was surprised at being put forward for the Presidency given his lack of legal training, he says his training as a chemical engineer set the stage for his future life and opened endless possibilities.
“I never saw it as a disadvantage and I still don’t see it as a disadvantage... I had spent ...over half of my working life at the University of the West Indies...The ways of the world were not new to me,” he says.
He recalls a Professor at Manchester University, where he got his undergraduate degree in 1955 and later a masters in 1957, who always urged his students to see the possibilities in their lives.
“He used to say ‘the whole world is open up to you...the world is your oyster’,” he says, sipping a glass of coconut water at his office adjoining President’s House, St Ann’s.
The prophecy would turn out to be dramatically true for the future Fellow of Cambridge College and future winner of the Trinity Cross in August 2003.
George Maxwell Richards was born on December 1, 1931, at his family’s home on San Fernando Street. His father, George Richards, was a barrister. His mother Henrietta Martin a housewife and teacher. One of two boys and three girls, Richards relishes his childhood.
“It was most enjoyable. Life was a lot less complicated then than it is now,” he remembers. Among his most vivid childhood recollections are his family’s trips to Mayaro, which he describes as “a haven in those days”. In his later life at university abroad, Richards would somehow be drawn back to the sea, or to rivers and water, for example taking up rowing while at Cambridge, where he obtained his PhD in 1963. Or participating in regattas while in Britain.
Today, life is much different.
“I’ve lost my privacy completely,” he says. “I can’t go anywhere on my own...I have not driven a car for five years.”
Richards wakes up daily at around 4.15 am. He engages in “a lil’ exercise”, reads and then has breakfast. He lives in a 150-year-old timber cottage adjoining his office and President’s House, where novelist Charles Kingsley once stayed.
“It’s a very pleasant place,” he says.
He’s in the office by 8 am. Lunch is “frugal”, normally a sandwich with “some juice” or soup. His favourite foods include cow heel soup, pelau, and Indian food. Throughout the day he receives visitors, attends functions, does paperwork, responds to correspondence. There are dinners for any of the more than 25 charities he is the patron of. He gets to bed by 10 pm.
“There’s never a dull moment,” he says.
Richards says he has no legal advisors. When he has to make a decision he consults a “few friends” who are lawyers. These “friends”, he notes, sometimes disagree.
“Law is not an exact science,” he says. Pulling out a copy of the constitution from his top drawer, he raises it as though it were his Bible.
He says he has no choice but to abide by the advice of the Prime Minister on certain decisions. For some decisions, he must, however, consult with the Opposition leader and specialist bodies such as the Judicial and Legal Services Commission.
If some abhorrent piece of legislation were to be passed by our Parliament, would he sign it? Assent to it?
“I would have to,” he says, “but I would also voice my objection” That, in his view, is the role of the President under our Constitution.
Pressed further, he says in the unlikely event that an extremely abhorrent or oppressive act of Parliament is ever passed in this country he would have to step down as President.
“I would have to resign,” he says.
Among the President’s top concerns, as a citizen of this country, is the problem of crime.
“Unfortunately, life has become very cheap,” Richards laments in reaction to the killing of school-boy Shaquille Roberts, 16, in the Success/Laventille School this week.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” he says. “To some extent the present generation of young people do not seem to have that (social support).”
Trinidad and Tobago is in need of a “social intervention.” The solution, he says, involves getting guns and drugs off the streets.
But crime is also, in his opinion, linked to another problem in our society. That of the gross inequalities between the rich and the poor. The “long-term” solution to this problem, he says, is education.
Another of his major concerns is the plight of the physically disadvantaged in our society. These people, he says, are today “the most vulnerable in our nation”.
“They need our support,” he implores.
But Richards is also passionate about the environment and, in particular, agriculture.
“I think we have to place greater emphasis on agriculture and the environment.”
But there is one national issue that is literally closest to the President– the preservation of our national landmarks.
Richards says plans have already been drawn up for the restoration of President’s House.
“I hope it will commence by June,” he says, glancing out of the window at the decaying building, with its spectacular stone walls and dark mottled roof. He laments that the restoration process can be very long, noting the President’s House may take four to five years.
Asked about the call to have the Boissiere House and other similar properties listed as “properties of interest” under National Trust legislation, he believes it would be a good thing to have them listed.
Otherwise, he asks, “what would happen if the Gingerbread House were to be sold? Obviously it will be sold to some developer who will want to put up a 15-storey building.”
He laments that work on the Nelson Island Heritage site is taking so long. The site has been closed off until the completion of works, which is scheduled for December 2009.
Richards notes that the site was being restored since he first became President back in 2003.
“I’m not sure five years later, how much further we are,” he says.
“This is part of our history and I think history is very important. it’s something that we have got to preserve and protect,” he says.
Yet while Richards clearly has a number of passions, he is looking forward to retiring to a simple life with his family and his books.
His favourite novelist is, somewhat predictably, VS Naipaul, whom he has met on several occasions. His favorite novel is The Mystic Masseur. He does not watch television, “except the news, of course.” He loves the colour green. He likes the song, “God Bless Our Nation” a lot. Like all Trinbagonians, the sea has its special place in his heart.
Richards has two children, one a consultant doctor, the other a manager.
“Well they’re not ‘children’ now,” he points out, noting that both are in their 30s and are “private”.
Plans of a future “simple” life seem far ahead, given his current hectic schedule. He will receive Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, this week. And the nature of TT politics these days causes him to call for change.
Politics in TT is “confrontational” Richards, notes, “that is the system in which we live” he says, commenting on the quality of discourse in Parliament these days.
Perhaps, this is why he says he would support any call for more female leaders and, in particular, a female president.
“The genetic make-up of women makes then better politicians,” he claims. “They tend to be less confrontational, more inclined to look for solutions.”
So how’s his relationship with his wife, Jean?
“Excellent!” he says in a loud, booming voice, sitting up, relaxed and unjacketed in his chair in his air-conditioned office. He points out he will celebrate his 40th anniversary with Jean next month. It will also be his 60th month in office as the President of Trinidad and Tobago.