The Ambition and the Power
Reflections of a Public Man
To Kill a King: The True Story of the Political Murder of Speaker Jim Wright, the Most Powerful Man in Congress
The resignation of Jim Wright as speaker of the House last May has had surprisingly few reverberations. The speaker is officially “second in line for the presidency,” but that understates the importance of the position Wright held: he was the leading figure in what is still, at least officially, the majority political party in this country, and, because of the relative passivity of Robert Byrd, the majority leader of the Senate during most of Wright’s speakership, he was the active head of the legislative branch of the federal government. Among elected officials, only the President outranked him. The job put Wright constantly on public view even in normal circumstances, and his protracted fall made him front-page news for the better part of a year. And yet now he has entered the same blurred region of the mind that Edwin Meese and Robert McFarlane occupy—one remembers that there was a great scandal, but the details have become hard to recall.
One reason that Wright has faded from view is that the speaker, while he ranks high, has not for many years, perhaps since the days of Sam Rayburn, been strong enough to maneuver himself into a position to set national policy. The House is itself a big, unwieldy body in which power has become much more decentralized than it used to be, ever since the rebellion against the seniority system in 1974. Members may be statistically safe from losing their seats, but they are still intensely aware of having to run every other year and tend to try to avoid the risks of taking strong positions.
Moreover, the institutions of elective politics that have grown most over the last two decades—television advertising, direct mail, political action committees, single-issue pressure groups—tend to reinforce a congressman’s deference to his constituency. Party-machine politics, the great generator of docility in the back benches, is now almost completely dead. Because the press has become increasingly important, members of Congress tend to take positions on the basis of concepts that can be publicly explained, rather than simply follow the party’s direction. And because television covers the news by way of recognizable personalities, the Senate (which has a smaller and longer running cast) gets more play than the House, and the White House (with its single star) gets far more than either.
But it isn’t just the diminishment of the speaker’s power that has made Wright disappear so quickly; it is also his personal shortcomings as a public figure. It is true that during his first (and last) full term as speaker, the House passed a lot of legislation: two bills to help the homeless, an overhaul of the farm credit system, a housing bill, a trade bill, a welfare reform bill, the short-lived catastrophic health insurance program, a highway bill and a clean water bill (both of which were passed over President Reagan’s veto), and a budget agreement that had a pronounced Democratic (that is, pro-tax) cast. During …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
The Fall of Jim Wright: An Exchange October 11, 1990