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 1987 and 1988, Reagan’s last two years as President and the time of the Iran-contra hearings, the White House was sufficiently weak that Wright did not have to follow Tip O’Neill’s model of the lovable, helpless complainer, but could take a stronger line.
On the other hand Wright was not nearly as adept as O’Neill at presenting himself as an important politician. As Theodore White liked to remind us, politicians are supposed to grow in office, acquiring more sophisticated advisers with each step up the ladder. By the time Wright became speaker in 1987, after thirty-two years on the Hill, he should have learned the folkways of a wider Washington—the world of policy intellectuals and TV political talk-show hosts and columnists and hostesses and lawyer “statesmen.” But he didn’t.
It is tempting to see the success or failure of public figures as set in early life. In the case of politicians, the temptation often ought to be resisted—the success of Ronald Reagan, for example, the son of an itinerant small-town alcoholic, would have been hard to predict. In Wright’s case, though, there may be some use in applying hindsight to his early years. Wright’s father was a big, rough, uneducated man who moved from job to job and from place to place during Wright’s childhood. Wright attended nine schools in nine different southwestern towns before he entered high school. He was never in one place long enough to acquire either urban sophistication or small-town shrewdness. Wright’s mother was “a patrician and Dad was an egalitarian,” he told John Barry, his biographer. “I always cherished Mother’s belief in us and her insistence we were something special.” This seems to have manifested itself when he grew up as a rigid determination and pride.
In the late Thirties, the senior Wright managed to start a marketing company, called National Trades Day, Inc., which successfully sold various promotional schemes to businesses. After he was discharged from the army, Jim Wright spent the rest of his twenties working as a traveling salesman for his father, and at the same time becoming a political prodigy. He was elected to the Texas Legislature at the age of twenty-three, and mayor of Weatherford, Texas, a town on the lonely plains west of Fort Worth, at twenty-six. He was something of a populist. His Depression upbringing and his father’s “egalitarianism” instilled in him a conviction that the highest purpose of government was to help ordinary working people, perpetually at risk of being robbed by the rich, to get their fair share of the economic pie. One of the few statements of principle that John Barry quotes him as making is this, on the subject of tax policy: “The burden has shifted in this country on who pays. The elderly and the poor are paying and it’s wrong. I’m sixty-five as of tomorrow. I have one more quarter to play in my life. I want this back.”
During his single term in the Texas Legislature in the late Forties Wright was a conventional liberal Democrat, but during his rough (and unsuccessful) campaign for reelection, like many other southern liberals of the period, he distanced himself from national liberal policy. He took out a newspaper ad saying, “I believe in the Southern tradition of segregation and have strongly resisted any and all efforts to destroy it.” After that, he used his natural aggressiveness simply to deliver for his constituency. His achievements as mayor of Weatherford were not inconsiderable: maintaining utility service for the poor and procuring a reliable water supply for the town.
In 1954, when he was thirty-one, Wright won a seat in Congress. This meant he could no longer work at National Trades Day, and his income fell from more than $70,000 a year to $12,500. Then, in 1961, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate seat that Lyndon Johnson vacated to become vice-president, he spent $70,000 of his own money on the campaign, some of it borrowed; it was impossible, on a congressman’s salary, to repay the debt, and it hung over him for more than a decade. Other troubles followed. One of his children was born with Down’s syndrome and soon died. In 1969 his marriage broke up, and he was further burdened by alimony and child support payments. He was approaching fifty, he was a run-of-the-mill congressman with heavy domestic and financial burdens, and his dim prospects seem to have embittered him. He wrote in his journal at around this time,
My finances are in shambles. With what unbelievable folly have I so long ignored them and let them drift? In my thirtieth year I was the richest young man in town. In my fiftieth, well, I’m driving a ten-year-old car, owe so god-awful much money I’ll need luck to pay it off.
In the Seventies Wright’s life began to change, but in a way that made him vulnerable later on. He married one of his secretaries, Betty Hay, who quit her job after the wedding for appearance’s sake. This, in addition to Betty’s own troubles—a straitened childhood in a broken home, a short, unhappy early marriage—seems to have had the unfortunate effect of deepening Wright’s sense of self-pity, especially about his financial condition.
When a prominent lobbyist named J.D. Williams offered to hold a fundraiser for Wright and transfer the contributions to him to retire his old campaign debt, Wright agreed. He also became friends with a renegade Fort Worth developer named George Mallick, who in 1980 started a company with Wright, Mallightco, that appears to have been an example of a classic institution of Texas politics, the “business partnership” between a prominent officeholder and his chief financial backer which is essentially a mechanism for enriching the officeholder by getting him into carefully selected, safe business deals. To start Mallightco Wright and Mallick each put up $58,000, Mallick in cash and Wright by putting stock in escrow. Soon the company was generating for Wright substantial dividends, loans, and perks that were far out of proportion to his practically nonexistent initial risk or contribution. Wright’s net worth was $68,000 in 1976; by 1981, a year after the founding of Mallightco, it was more than $500,000.
In 1976, Tip O’Neill became speaker, and Wright ran for House majority leader, winning by one vote. When O’Neill announced his intention to retire, Wright immediately began gathering pledges of support for the speakership from House Democrats. On February 5, 1985, nearly two years before the election of speaker, Wright held a press conference to announce that he had pledges in hand from a majority of the Democrats in the House and so in effect had won the race for speaker before it had even started—a move that got him the job but earned the resentment of his colleagues.
Wright had wanted to be an unusually strong speaker, but his political and intellectual background left him ill-equipped to lead the Democrats of the House. Texas liberals like Wright have only a thin topsoil to support them. Organized labor is relatively weak in Texas: by far the most powerful liberal lobby is the trial lawyers’ association, whose leading members have money but who lack organizations or constituencies. The electorate is so chauvinistic about Texas that appeals to populism are best directed at out-of-state targets, such as Wall Street. Texas conservative businessmen are unpopular only if they seem to be Yankees at heart, which helps to explain the failure of George Bush and James Baker ever to win state-wide office back home.
The voters tend to be very conservative on issues like defense, foreign policy, welfare, and taxes. Even the “new class” in Texas, such as it is, is not especially liberal on these issues. In fact there is no clearly identifiable liberal establishment in Texas. Mexican-American and black Texas politicians can endorse the positions of the national Democratic party without getting into trouble with their constituencies, but a white liberal like Wright has to fashion an elaborate message that is promilitary and against “big government,” while still seeming somehow progressive. He therefore gains experience less in consensus politics than in sheer aggressiveness of a sort that is frowned on in Congress.