“There's never a dull moment,” George Maxwell Richards said in 2008 at the start of his second term as president. Despite weathering many controversies, his tenure will be remembered most for returning the presidency to relative stability after a tumultuous period in which this country had faced unprecedented constitutional crises.
Richards, who this week died in retirement at the age of 86, was a president who tenuously explored the powers of office, but never went beyond them. Though he was the first and only president without a legal background, he had an understanding of law that exceeded the grasp of many. Yet, some saw things differently. Richards’ botched appointment of a new Integrity Commission in 2009 was a low point for both that watchdog body and the presidency. Despite calls for his own resignation – one of his appointees did not meet the basic legal criteria – Richards remained defiant.
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 relished his childhood.
“It was most enjoyable. Life was a lot less complicated then than it is now,” he said. Richards held the highest office in the land, but never lost touch with the people. Here was a president renowned for playing mas and hosting Carnival fetes, something some critics seized upon, designating him, “the feteing President.” His favourite foods included cow heel soup, pelau, and roti.
Whatever Richards lacked in legal training he made up for with a vast expertise and experience, particularly from his time as principal of the University of the West Indies where he made major contributions to the engineering department. Prior to this, he impressed with glittering qualifications, including scholarships, work placements and a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1963. He was later made a fellow of Pembroke College at the same university.
Richards was outspoken and once requested a report from then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Even then, he acted within the purviews of the Constitution. He strongly believed the Constitution fettered his powers when it came to assenting laws. Still, Richards was a principled man. As president, he was of the view that if ever a fundamentally abhorrent law were to be presented to him, he would do one thing.
“I would have to resign,” he said. Richards also once called for a female president, something he lived long enough to see on the horizon.