Jim Wright, the 56th speaker of the House and the only one ever forced out of office by scandal, died Wednesday. He was 92 and died in his native Fort Worth, Texas, which he represented for more than 34 years until his resignation in 1989.
Wright was widely perceived as one of the strongest leaders of the post-war period during much of his single full term as speaker, during the 100th Congress. But the Texas Democrat was gone after just 29 months on the job, succumbing to a rapidly mounting series of allegations he’d violated House rules limiting gifts to lawmakers, as well as members’ outside income and business interests. The simmering questions about Wright’s ethics were stoked into an eventually uncontainable firestorm — mainly by Newt Gingrich, who used the scandal to transform himself from a backbench gadfly into the leader of a younger and more confrontational generation of House Republicans. Many veteran members from both parties, and many nonpartisan students of Congress, mark the GOP crusade against Wright as the crossing-the-Rubicon moment for the reflexive partisanship and combative incivility that define the Capitol today.
“All of us, in both political parties, must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end,” a tearful Wright beseeched his colleagues during an hourlong resignation speech from the well of the House on May 31, 1989 — a parting wish that drew a thunderous bipartisan ovation in the moment, but which has been relentlessly ignored ever since. “Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown up among us.”
His use of that fancy word for a sacrifice of atonement was vintage Wright. The most recent top congressional leader without a college degree, he appeared committed to walking into every confrontation confident he’d done more homework than anyone else in the room — and eager to show off his knowledge with a sometimes preachy flourish.
That was part of a personality that often seemed ill-suited for someone so high up in the Hill chain of command, and it did not make it any easier for him to survive once the ethical going got rough. The allegations about Wright’s conduct were serious and widespread enough that even a more popular inside player would have had a tough time remaining speaker. But Wright’s own political and personal style made him particularly vulnerable to being abandoned, even by his own side.
He was an enigma to most of his colleagues — more feared than befriended, in part because his forcefulness as a policymaker was offset by his reputation as a reticent loner in the cloakroom. His oratorical skill on the House floor or in the courthouse squares of Texas came across as long-windedly ineffectual during closed-door meetings with members. Similarly, his habit of sounding ingratiating to friend and foe alike when he was in public was countermanded by a short temper and patronizing immodesty with those same lawmakers in private. His critics warned that the more statesmanlike he sounded about an issue on the House floor, the more partisan he intended to be once the legislative bargaining began.
Wright’s skills on that front were often complicated by a tendency toward micromanagement and difficulty shielding his own thin skin when it came to relatively small slights. (The rhinoceros was God’s greatest mistake, he once said, because it had a “a hide two feet thick and no apparent interest in politics — what a waste.”)
And his affect often did not translate well on television: With his syrupy Texas twang, caterpillar eyebrows and Cheshire cat grin, he could make the most benign snippet from the parliamentary script — “Members will record their votes by electronic device” — sound like a B-movie villain’s prescription for torture.
All that aside, Wright presided over one of the most legislatively productive Congresses since the Great Society. His grand legislative program to countermand, or at least modify, many of the conservative accomplishments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency led in 1987 and 1988 to a deficit-reduction package including a modest tax increase and significant changes in farm credit, banking, securities, clean water, welfare, Medicare, transportation, trade and gender-bias law. The individual appropriations bills (13 in those days) were all cleared and signed before the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 1988 — a feat almost impossible to imagine these days.
Wright also inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy fight of the day, which was how much the Reagan administration should be doing, covertly or overtly, to help the democracy-craving rebels seeking to overthrow the communist government in Nicaragua. Wright’s personal efforts to broker a peace agreement, highly unusual for a House speaker, were criticized by the White House as an unwanted intrusion into presidential territory and contributed significantly to the Republican congressional antipathy toward him.
But the ethics morass that enveloped Wright was focused exclusively on his financial dealings. The formal complaint Gingrich filed in the fall of 1987 metastasized by April 1989 into allegations from the Ethics Committee that Wright violated House rules 69 times, most notably by taking $145,000 in improper gifts during the previous decade from a powerful Texas developer and by concocting a scheme to exaggerate bulk sales of his memoir so he could get more in royalties.
One of the gifts was an allegedly no-show, $18,000-a-year job at an investment firm for Betty Hay Wright, who had been a secretary for the congressman until just before they married in 1972. She survives him, as do his three daughters and a son from his first marriage.
Wright resigned after it became clear several Democrats on the committee, as well as all the Republicans, would rebuff his efforts to get some of the major charges dismissed. But Wright’s political demise was hastened by two other events that spring: The resignations of both his chief aide, after revelations the staffer had brutally assaulted a woman in the 1970s, and of Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California over his own financial controversy.
Wright was the third Texas Democrat of the 20th century to attain the most powerful position on Capitol Hill, after John Nance Garner and Sam Rayburn, but he was toppled just as the Republican Party was accelerating its political takeover of what’s now the nation’s second most populous state. He was also more politically progressive than all but a handful of the white Democrats in the House today from districts in between the coasts.
Wright had been unopposed within his party to ascend to the top House job when Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill retired at the end of 1986. He spent the previous decade as majority leader, working to solidify a Democratic caucus that in those days was often fractured between Southern conservatives and urban social liberals. His perceived ability to bridge that divide helped him score an upset victory (by a single vote) in his 1976 campaign for the No. 2 spot in the Democratic hierarchy against two polarizing rivals, Richard Bolling of Missouri and Phillip Burton of California.
He was helped by the previous two decades he’d spent amassing seniority on the Public Works Committee, where he’d done favors for dozens of his colleagues by helping them secure earmarks for various federal buildings, highway interchanges and water projects. (But, unlike most members who enter the leadership ranks, he’d never chaired a committee or even a powerful subcommittee.) His time on the panel during the expansionist 1950s and 1960s, when bread-and-butter Democrats operated in a money-is-no-object environment, was reflected in the maxim he uttered time and again: “We make a bigger mistake when we think too small than when we think too big.”
James Claude Wright Jr. was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 22, 1922, and spent much of his childhood crisscrossing the Southwest as the son of a traveling salesman. After a couple of semesters at both Weatherford College (in his mother’s hometown of Weatherford) and the University of Texas-Austin, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross as a bombardier in the South Pacific. He was unopposed for election to the state House in 1946 but was ousted two years later by an opponent who lambasted him as a liberal. (Wright supported anti-lynching legislation and federal school aid.)
His comeback began with his election as mayor of Weatherford in 1950, and four years later he got to Congress by defeating a conservative incumbent, Rep. Wingate Lewis, in the Democratic primary. His hold on the House seat remained ironclad ever after, but he came up short in his two efforts to move to the Senate. He finished third among the 71 candidates in the 1961 special election to fill the seat vacated by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, barely missing a runoff where he would have been favored over college professor John Tower, who instead became the first Republican senator from Texas since Reconstruction. Wright launched a challenge to Tower in 1966, but gave up after realizing his votes for organized labor had dried up his support (and donations) from the Texas business community.
After resigning from the House, Wright wrote several books and taught a fall semester course at Texas Christian University on the relationship between Congress and the president. (Failing eyesight brought an end to his lecturing in 2011.) He made small headlines in November 2013, when he was briefly denied a Texas voter identification card because his driver’s license had lapsed, and in May 2014, when he said he regretted giving up the speakership because the gesture had done nothing to stop partisan vilification in the House.
“Absolutely. I think I miscalculated,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Maybe I was attributing to myself a greater influence than I had … that members would change their attitudes toward one another because of what I did.”
Life After Congress: Jim Wright
The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.