Those of us seeking to understand what has gone wrong with Congress are always on the lookout for characters who can be cast as villains in the institution’s history. Standard discussions (including McKay Coppins’s recent Atlantic story) often center on Newt Gingrich, and certainly this decade’s revelations about Dennis Hastert’s terrible past now make him a superlative heel. But for those who want to look across the aisle, Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-Tex., in Congress 1955-1989, Speaker 1986-1989) is sometimes singled out.
Understanding who Wright was and how he went wrong is thus of great importance for congressional institutionalists, and we now have a new biography to aid in the effort. J. Brooks Flippen’s Speaker Jim Wright methodically works its way through Wright’s youth in Weatherford, Texas, his service as a bombardier in World War II, his election in 1946, at age 24, to the Texas House of Representatives, his loss of that seat and subsequent business career and stint as Weatherford’s mayor, and from there into his 34-year-long career in the House of Representatives.
Flippen wants his readers to appreciate Wright’s many-sidedness. He was an ambitious man whose energy and discipline drove him to great political successes; a fairly liberal Texan; a fiscal conservative pork-barreler; a representative of his generation and its style of compromise-driven politics, who then became a Speaker whose win-at-any-cost attitude made his downfall inevitable. He convincingly argues that if we focus only on the corruption scandals that allowed his opponents to drive him from office in 1989, we will be unable to understand one of the major figures in 20th-century American politics. Indeed, he grandly closes: “To understand Jim Wright in all his complexity, with all his flaws and mistakes, all his strengths and triumphs, is to understand much of the American past and the politicians who guided it. The story of Jim Wright, whether a tragedy or triumph, is a story of America.”
That seems hard to argue with—but those of us who think that Congress’s devolution threatens to turn the American story tragic ought to regard Jim Wright’s legacy with somewhat less equanimity than this. Wright’s speakership occupied a pivotal place in Congress’s history, a moment in which the era of the “Sun and Moon parties” (with Democrats as the dominant star and Republicans as the orbiting satellite) was giving way to one of balanced partisan competition. No doubt, this was an exceptional challenge. But Wright failed spectacularly, in a way that discredited institutionalism by making it seem like a lame cover for simple corruption. Flippen is right that we can learn from taking a long view of Wright’s life and career, and in so doing appreciate his virtues. At the end of this reflection, though, if we are determined to shake off the inheritance of broken politics that Wright bequeathed, we should not hesitate to render judgment.
Flippen makes it clear that from his youth, Wright was driven by an almost boundless ambition. But, far from leaving him a mere opportunist, the young Wright’s ambitions led him to become a serious policymaker, someone who took his district’s interests as a starting point and made himself into a master of these domains over many decades. As the representative of Fort Worth, Texas, and its surrounding environs, these interests prominently included water policy, infrastructure development, and Latin America policy, each of which became a Wright specialty.
As he pursued these interests, Wright demonstrated a special aptitude as a bridge-builder between disparate factions within the Democratic coalition. Part of this was sheer force of personality; Wright was good at making friends, and his seat on the Environment and Public Works committee provided him the ability to bestow favors on his many friends over the years. But Wright’s background as a liberal from the conservative south was also crucial in giving him credibility with different kinds of people. He skillfully cast himself as an ally of unions, but not someone at their beck and call; as a mild booster of civil rights, but not someone who was pushing things along too far ahead of their time; and as a deficit hawk, but not someone who was stingy about investing in America’s future where good opportunities existed. Importantly, he was also someone who early on styled himself as an advocate of transparency and restrictions on money in politics, while also becoming a powerhouse fundraiser for the party.
Wright’s statesmanlike ability to straddle fences while still forcefully advancing his own priorities put him in an ideal position to climb the party leadership ladder. That was not actually his preferred path; unlike his colleague Tip O’Neill, Wright did not think of himself as a “Man of the House.” When Lyndon Johnson, one of Wright’s mentors in Congress in the 1950s, became Vice President, Wright pushed hard to win his Senate seat in a 1961 special election, ultimately losing a hard-fought primary. He flirted with jumping to the Executive Branch in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and was often a vocal defender of the Executive Branch’s primacy in foreign affairs during those years and even into the Nixon Administration. Only once those opportunities passed him by and Wright found himself rising in seniority did he begin to envision himself as a House leader and defend the particular prerogatives of his chamber.
Whatever Wright’s deepest desires, throughout the 1970s he outmaneuvered competitors in the tumultuous Democratic caucus to position himself to rise. Although O’Neill grabbed the majority whip spot after the tragic plane-crash death of Hale Boggs in 1972 and thereby set his own trajectory to the speakership, Wright managed to straddle the divide between reformers and the old guard to eventually beat out Richard Bolling and Phillip Burton by a single vote on the third ballot of the majority leader contest after the elections of 1976. O’Neill and Wright continued the famed Austin-Boston Connection that gave a sense of balance to the national Democratic coalition. Wright waited his turn and then assiduously secured commitments from his copartisans ahead of O’Neill’s exit after 1986, making his rise to the speakership free of significant drama.
As Wright traveled his path to the Speakership, America’s political landscape was transforming. Party politics in Texas when Wright began his career was Democratic politics; Republicans were not completely absent from the scene, but they were treated by the real players as a superfluous sort of local color. The Speaker of the House when Wright arrived to the House was Sam Rayburn, whom the younger Texan Wright looked up to with filial reverence. In Wright’s reckoning, the House when he arrived was marked by its cooperative style in which members’ “mutual assumption of honor. . .held things together.”1 Not until he was a dozen election cycles in did Wright draw a serious general election opponent in 1974. He prided himself on his “almost unvarying practice never even to mention the name of my opponent. I talked instead of what I believed and what I was trying to achieve.”2
Given Wright’s comfort with the familiar one-party political scene, Republicans’ slow post-Civil Rights return from obscurity in the South was bound to unsettle him. John Tower’s election to Johnson’s Senate seat rightly struck him as a harbinger of a confrontational style of politics in the making. When he was Majority Leader and charged with wrangling conservative Texans to stick with the Democratic Party rather than going over to the Reagan Administration, he was bitterly disappointed at every defection. As he put it: “I feel like the wife who was asked whether she considered divorce. She answered, ‘Divorce, no, murder, yes.’” But divorce would come, in any case, for party-switching members including Phil Gramm and Kent Hance. One senses from Flippen’s account that by the mid-1980s, Wright had come to thoroughly resent Republicans, whom he had thought of as a domesticated species. He and O’Neill especially relished pushing through domestic spending bills over Reagan’s vetoes.
Once he had the Speaker’s gavel, it was quickly evident that Wright had left the consensual politics of his younger days behind. Both his fellow Democrats and Republicans found him to be imperious and easily offended by dissent; as Flippen puts it, “he dictated more than he consulted.” Wright restructured the Democratic whip operation without consulting his caucus’s elected whip, Tony Coelho; he tried (unsuccessfully) to mount a leadership takeover of the House Administration Committee; he delayed naming his Rules Committee appointments so that the ultimate recipients would “remember they were the Speaker’s appointees”; and he grabbed extra office space.3 Members also thought he was addicted to arbitrary deadlines and limits on debates. Most dramatically, as Wright sought to push through a revenue-positive reconciliation bill following “Black Monday” in October 1987, his favored rule was voted down. Chamber rules prohibited an identical vote on the same day, but Wright was determined—so he ordered the House adjourned and then immediately reconvened, saying that this made a new vote permissible. On the brink of losing that re-vote 207-206, Wright kept the voting open 10 minutes past its 15-minute limit until he could pressure a Democratic hold-out to support him.4
As Wright saw it, all of this was in the name of efficient policymaking, and his caucus ultimately appreciated it. As he wrote in his memoir, “Instead of autonomous feudal barons each pursuing a leisurely independent course, most members of the hierarchy once described by O’Neill as his ‘College of Cardinals’ now felt part of a purposeful team.” He wanted the Speakership because he “saw things I thought needed doing, and I supposed that I could bring them about.” However inconsiderately he treated his fellow Democrats, then, they could at least console themselves with the sense that he was making the most of their party’s control of Congress.
But Republicans had no such consolation, and they came to see Wright as an enemy, plain and simple. Throughout the 1980s, there was a simmering dispute among congressional Republicans: whether to participate unreservedly in Democrat-led governance, as House Minority Leader Bob Michel preferred, or to adopt a more confrontational stance, as upstart Newt Gingrich loudly advocated. When O’Neill was Speaker, Michel’s way of thinking held its own. But Wright’s tendency to steamroll Republicans ensured that Gingrich would steadily accumulate influence. Political scientist Nelson Polsby judged that Wright’s style “further weaken[ed] the credibility of go-along, get-along Republicans among their Republican colleagues. By drawing partisan lines, Wright gave Republican moderates—moderates in style, not necessarily in policy preferences—no place to go but into the camp of Republican militants.”5 Said rising Republican star Vin Weber, “The dislike of Speaker O’Neill was ideological. . . .He was really the symbol of northeastern liberalism. The dislike of Speaker Wright is different. Republicans think he is basically and fundamentally unfair; that he does not have the respect for the institution like Tip; that deep down he is a mean-spirited person, ruthless in the truest sense of the word.”6
As House Republicans seethed at Wright’s high-handedness as their chamber’s parliamentary leader, many outside of Congress came to think that Wright was acting too big for his britches in other ways as well. From his earliest days in Congress, Wright had developed his interest in foreign affairs, and especially Central America. For many years, he had seen himself as a defender of the Executive Branch’s leading role in diplomacy and war, but revelations during the Reagan Administration led to a sharp turn. Wright learned that the CIA had taken actions specifically with the intent of stonewalling Congress’s fact-finding in war-torn Nicaragua and El Salvador, and generally came to believe that the administration was acting in bad faith. In response, he became embroiled in a war of words with the spy agency, which accused him of improperly leaking classified information. More strikingly, he sometimes seemed to be conducting a one-man foreign policy out of the Speaker’s office, trying to broker deals between the Contras and Sandinistas even as the Reagan Administration refused to deal with them. By Wright’s own reckoning, this adventure was a success, helping to set the groundwork for a ceasefire deal in 1988. But the American press mostly judged him out of line, “an egomaniac who thought that he was president.”
Wright, then, was not lacking for enemies. When they came looking for weapons to use against him, they found he had given them an embarrassment of riches over the years through behavior ranging from shady to obviously corrupt. His 1961 Senate campaign had racked up $90,000 in debt unbeknownst to him, and he insisted that he find a way to cover those expenditures. A fundraiser organized for the purpose drew charges that employees of local Fort Worth businesses had been forced to contribute. That lingering debt gave Wright a chip on his shoulder about what his political career had done to his fortune, which led him to work with his lawyers to figure out how to exploit every available legal loophole. In Flippen’s view, he was “determined to augment his wealth,” and “thought it only fair that he had the same opportunities others had enjoyed.” Both of Wright’s wives’ professional lives became entwined in his business ventures in awkward and suspicious ways. Wright became partners in a real estate venture with a political admirer, George Mallick, which proved to be highly lucrative. Their company would come to make Wright large loans over time. More directly relating to Wright’s political responsibilities, he rather tactlessly interceded with the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation on behalf of a number of Texas firms.
Perhaps most infamous was the scandal surrounding a book that Wright published as Majority Leader in 1984, Reflections of a Public Man. A collection of Wright speeches, the book did not seem likely to be a hot seller. But Wright nevertheless negotiated a 55 percent royalty for himself on all copies sold. Before long, those who wished to ingratiate themselves with Wright were buying in bulk. One man later admitted to buying 1,000 copies “just trying to make a contribution to Jim’s income.” This was most definitely legal—limits on outside income had an exception for book royalties—but it stank of corruption.
Newt Gingrich picked up that scent and identified it as one of Democrats’ biggest weaknesses. He thought Wright’s relationship to money was a relic of an earlier era, writing in his own memoir: “Just as Spiro Agnew had discovered that the style of corruption taken perfectly for granted in 1960 Maryland would destroy him as Vice President a decade later, the habits and practices that were perfectly survivable in Texas a generation earlier would not pass the national standards of the late 1980s.” He knew that gunning for Wright would make him unpopular with those happy with the institutional status quo, but he rightly calculated that it was a political risk worth taking given the public’s general wariness of Congress. Because of his agitation, the House Ethics Committee was convinced of the need for a special counsel to investigate Wright’s activities. The counsel’s report, submitted in February 1989, was damning, running to almost 500 pages and painting an unequivocal picture of corruption. In April, the Ethics Committee found 69 different charges worth pursuing further, and in May it was reported that the IRS would conduct a criminal investigation. Realizing that he was effectively crippled, Wright resigned on June 6, 1989. The ascendancy of Gingrich’s brand of politics was all but certain.
Wright and Gingrich deserve to be remembered together by posterity. Gingrich, of course, kept on brawling. In the midterm election of 1994 he delivered the House majority to the GOP for the first time in four decades. His own speakership was tumultuous, to say the least, and he was driven out after two terms, having alienated his own caucus and run up his own list of ethics charges. In many ways, then, Gingrich and Wright look like mirror images of each other: the two men who saw that cutthroat partisan competition was now at hand, after a long era of one-party dominance, and led their parties to adopt a stance of mortal combat in response.
One might wonder whether their respective attempts to turn the House of Representatives into a well-honed tool for partisan warfare ought to be regarded as ultimately salutary, if often painful to experience close-up. After all, ambition is supposed to counteract ambition, and both Speakers mobilized Congress against presidents they saw as out-of-line. When the American people chose divided government in 1986 and 1994, wasn’t partisan combat what they were signing up for? A case can certainly be made. The clashes between Wright and Reagan on taxes and spending, and between Gingrich and Bill Clinton on welfare and spending, arguably produced reasonable syntheses on thorny political issues.
But zoom out to the level of institutional history, and it is hard to avoid seeing Wright and Gingrich as destroyers. Although they locked horns with presidents, their fury was directed at least as much inwardly, against their own colleagues—and not just those across the aisle. Both men believed that centralization of power within their own office was the best way of serving their parties, which allowed them to rationalize abusing anyone and everyone who could be seen as an independent power center. Their actions ultimately hollowed out the House’s policymaking abilities (which were deeply intertwined with the committee system they trampled over) and helped to ruin the reputation of their institution as a place for anything other than partisan jockeying.
In Wright’s farewell address before resigning as Speaker, he denounced members who had “become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party, in God’s name that is not what this institution is supposed to be about!” He continued: “All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end! There has been enough of it.” Fine words, but the period is still going strong almost three decades later. Ultimately, the will to end it is unlikely to come from party leaders, who are cast in the role of field generals in the ongoing war between the parties, thereby securing the loyalty of their infantry. Instead, a new era for Congress will have to come from its members insisting on organizing the institution so as to create meaningful opportunities for action for rank-and-file members, even those in the minority. Tell this to regular members, and they vigorously nod along—before fretting that the defeat of the other party in the next election really is the most important thing. And so, we are destined to spend at least a little longer in the world that Wright and Gingrich made.
1Jim Wright, Balance of Power (Turner Publishing, Inc., 1996), p. 39.
3Nelson Polsby, How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 133
5Ibid., 133, 132-136.
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