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The Fall of Jim Wright: An Exchange

In response to:

The Fall of Jim Wright from the May 17, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

I know that in writing The Ambition and the Power, which examines Jim Wright’s two and a half year reign as Speaker of the House, I wrote a long book, but I was rather surprised to see that I had also written seventy-five percent of Nicholas Lemann’s review of it in The New York Review [May 17]. This seems about the percentage of his review which synopsized a few selected parts of my book. I only wish he had gotten it right.

For one thing, Lemann states that after Wright resigned “Democrats revenged themselves on John Tower.” That statement puzzled me since Tower’s rejection as secretary of defense came three months before, not after, Wright’s auto da fe. I was also puzzled that Lemann identified me as Wright’s “biographer.” Considering that the book devotes only twenty pages to Wright’s background (and only somewhat fewer pages to the backgrounds of Tom Foley, Newt Gingrich, Bob Michel, Dan Rostenkowski, and Tony Coelho), calling me a biographer brings to mind what offensive back Brian Piccolo said after being named to a college football All-American defensive team: “I only played defense for three plays all year, and only made one tackle. It must have been a hell of a tackle.”

Although my book does explore the role of personality in political leadership, it is actually no more a biography than books about presidential campaigns are biographies about presidential candidates. Just as these other books attempt to use campaigns as narrative vehicles to study politics, my book tries to use Wright’s Speakership as a narrative vehicle to study power and governing. The bulk of the book focuses, I hope, on how power is exercised in Washington, and particularly in the Congress.

The book discusses such issues, entirely apart from Wright the person, as the relationships between Congressional leadership and rank-and-file members, between the parties inside the Congress, between the House and Senate, and between the Congress and the White House; the fact that Wright embodied the New Deal’s approach to politics and with his and Claude Pepper’s passing the nation has finally moved on to a new stage; the manipulation of the media outside the Congress; the role of polls in setting a legislative agenda; the interplay between political issues and substantive legislation; how members use lobbyists to advance their agendas, and not simply the reverse; and how process dictates substance—how, for example, insider power plays in the House Rules Committee can control policy.

Unfortunately, Lemann’s misidentifying me as Wright’s biographer is representative of his failure to address these issues in his review. And even when discussing Wright, Lemann failed to apply his usual intellectual rigor, as indicated by his calling Wright’s involvement in the Central American peace process “almost quaint.” Even if one despises Wright, this description sounds bizarre. His foray in Nicaragua marked the climax of a six-year-long struggle between the executive and legislative branches. It also prompted Newt Gingrich to tell me in mid-1987, “If Wright survives this ethics thing”—Gingrich was already working full-time to see that he would not—“he may become the greatest Speaker since Henry Clay.” Even the most begrudging of observers would have to concede that Wright played an important role in achieving this year’s free election in Nicaragua.

I have to wonder why so fine a journalist as Lemann missed so many points by so wide a mark. One answer is that my book failed miserably to make these points clear, but that is not the only possible answer. Another is that the review reflects a reaction typical of many journalists to Wright, who, after all, was probably the least popular political figure among reporters since Nixon.

Lemann clearly did not review my book. He reviewed Wright. And his obvious dislike of Wright could well account for such sloppy and obvious errors as confusing the departures of Wright and Tower. It could also account for his decision to “review” not only my book but two others as well—Wright’s own unfortunate volume published by a Fort Worth political supporter which brought him so much grief, and a self-published book by George Mair, a Wright aide who as Lemann noted routinely wrote paranoid letters to newspapers. (When was the last time that he reviewed a self-published book?) I wonder whether Lemann read these two books because he was seeking deep insights into Wright, or because he was searching for opportunities to make a few more clever comments about him. Cleverness can be insightful and provocative, but I fear that in this case Lemann substituted cleverness for thought.

Lastly, Lemann complained, “Finding himself inside all the closed doors which reporters are accustomed to camping out on the wrong side of, Barry probably felt that he had to strike a note of grandeur in order to drive home the magnitude of his coup.” (The “coup” referred to was the access I gained to normally private meetings of both Wright and some of his opponents.)

I was certainly aware of how unusual this arrangement was and I did explain it to readers in my note on methodology, but is did not make me “feel” a need to embellish anything in the body of the book. Quite the contrary, the unusualness of my access made me want to underplay it. If the book’s “grandeur” seems excessive I regret it, but the narrative does encompass what seems to me in all honesty a fairly amazing story: first, how Wright succeeded in wresting power from the White House, House Republicans, and even Democratic colleagues to make himself into—briefly—the most powerful Speaker since Joe Cannon, and how these very successes ultimately made him the first Speaker in history to be driven from office. Gingrich’s above-quoted comparison of Wright to Clay came almost two years before Wright’s resignation, and several months after Gingrich had begun a campaign to destroy him; it indicates how high Gingrich considered the stakes to be and how long he pursued Wright.

Probably I shouldn’t take Lemann’s review seriously. Evidently he didn’t.

John M. Barry
Washington, DC

To the Editors:

Nick Lemann’s tendentious commentary upon Jim Wright is rife with errors of fact and careless conclusions, many of which betray an appalling arrogance.

As the sister to whom he twice refers in his so-called book review, I am exerting myself to correct certain large and trifling misstatements of fact:

Our father, born a hundred years ago into impoverished rural circumstance, was not a “rough and uneducated man.” He was largely self-educated. Only a “rough and uneducated” person confuses the two conditions—and, in my own judgement, only an incivil and careless chronicler would make such a rude and bald statement concerning some man whom neither he nor any presumable informant had ever met.

Our mutual father (Jim Wright’s and mine, and our sister Betty’s) was widely viewed by those who knew him as a man of exceptional grace, sensitivity, wit and intellect.

Of course, Mr. Lemann’s definition of “intellect” is as mystifying as his concept of “education”: “…the truth is,” he states, “that Wright lacks the intellectual equipment that most matters…the ability to communicate a sweeping version of reality that seems to explain everything.”

Mr. Lemann seems regrettably to possess just such “equipment” in some abundance.

Here, we read: “in his intimate circle of aides, lobbyists, and relatives, Wright has a reputation as a man of intellect”—an opinion Lemann instantly dismisses as a case of the one-eyed king.

Thanks, Sweetie! I always envied the way your family could read those comic books, hanging upside down by their tails.

I take no umbrage at being classified a character out of Sherwood Anderson. I vastly enjoyed Winesburg, Ohio at age 17 (when I was in Law School), and might still find it rather more entertaining than Euripides. I can bear it with equanimity that Nicholas Lemann wouldn’t cast me as Medea.

But, getting back to those impediments of fact which hobble so many writers of “equipment” inferior to Lemann’s: I never wrote press releases for the DCCC—nor in fact for any organization other than the New Mexico Music Festival. Not that this matters, except as an example of slovenly reporting. How difficult would it have been to check that fact?

I have indeed periodically supported myself as a writer; I did perform work for the DCCC; and I might properly be described as a poet. It is not far-fetched to say I once imagined it might be pleasant to win the Nobel Prize.

But how should my work at the DCCC—whatever it was—disqualify the erst-while dreams of an ardently aspiring young poet? or, how should that make me a creature of Anderson’s?

Try this for a non sequitur:

He quotes Wright as having written, in a personal journal, “My finances are in a shambles. With what unbelievable folly have I so long ignored them…?” This statement, Lemann interprets as “self-pity”. “With what unbelievable folly….” Does this express self-pity? Has the writer said here, (even to himself), “Why does this bad old world treat me so mean?”

To say “I’ve been pretty foolish” is meager evidence of self-pity.

Here’s another:

That George Mair considered [John] Barry an enemy [and called him] a ‘ferret-faced fool…’ ” suggests that Barry was treated as a staff member.”

It does that? Well, do say! If I called Nick Lemann a “ferret-faced fool,” would he then be considered a colleague of mine? Does it make Newt Gangrene a member of my family or social group or professional staff, that I consider him a fat-faced fool? I’m afraid I miss the “ferret-faced-fool-of-an-enemy” connection.

Such flaccid conclusions abound in this writing.

Lemann airily dismisses masses of substantive fact with a flick of his snowy handkerchief. The legislative achievements of Jim’s first term as Speaker are instantly dismissed. Jim should instead have busied himself with learning “the world of policy intellectuals and TV political talk-show hosts and columnists and hostesses and lawyer ‘statesmen.’ But he didn’t.” Ah, too bad! Wherein we’re back to that missing ingredient of “intellectual equipment.”

Here are some picayune corrections of fact:

Our father did not “move from job to job,” having been self-employed throughout most of his life. The name of his company is misstated, as it was never incorporated. Speaker Wright was not in the army, but the Air Force. He was not a “traveling salesman.” The Senate-campaign debt to which you refer was in largest part retired by the sale of a ranch near Kerrville, Texas—a beau geste not common among major politicians: to sell their principle assets to settle debts of a failed campaign.

I’m able to provide one additional fact:

Democrats had almost nothing to do with John Tower’s rejection as Secretary of Defense.

The action in question was taken by right wing antagonists who on the day of the Senate vote circulated every Senator on Capitol Hill with a hand-delivered expose concerning Mr. Tower’s sexual dalliance with KGB prostitutes. Perhaps neither my brother nor Senator Tower are in possession of these facts.

Considering the arbitrary, expensive and excruciatingly painful repercussions levied against enemies of the recent or present administrations who even inadvertently reveal items of (spuriously and often self-servingly) “classified” information, I can sympathize with Mr. Lemann’s ignorance in this matter: an ignorance so widely shared within the Washington press corps.

It isn’t the sort of gossip fat-faced fools like Gangrene promulgate.

Perhaps for this combination of reasons, the fact has been all but totally ignored or suppressed.

Merely for the record:

No member of my family or of my brother’s staff saw a paragraph of Barry’s manuscript until in appeared in print. After the book appeared, I expressed to the author my reservations concerning a few conclusions he’d drawn. In one case did I question his statements of fact, and I respected his reporting. I consider it to be an important historic document: well researched and scholarly.

I’ll no doubt read Mr. Mair’s book with equal interest if and when it appears in public presentation. But if his “way of jockeying for power was to enlist [my] support,” he’s not quite ready for Santa Anita.

I am a private citizen; connected by blood and love and pride to a public figure.—An intensely private person who has assiduously defended her right to the peaceful pursuit of a financially impoverished, more or less ordinary, outwardly uneventful life embellished by dreams and harmless aspirations. I can readily forgive Mr. Lemann any such fevered aspirations as he might once have entertained—albeit equally undeservedly as myself.

I find his arrogance more pathetic than venal.

But what, precisely, is his problem, that he should feel the faintest impulse to assay and ridicule the intellectual properties of an entire and totally benign family group, no member of which he has ever encountered? Everything he needed to know, he must have learned in a pisspoor kindergarten. Mary Connell
Espanola, New Mexico

Nicholas Lemann replies:

I wrote my article with two goals in mind: reviewing Barry’s book, and discussing the fall of Jim Wright. It was in pursuit of the second goal that I included Wright’s and Mair’s books in the review. I wrote that the Democrats revenged themselves on John Tower because, as Barry himself points out, by the time the Tower scandal broke Newt Gingrich had already been promoting the Wright affair for well over a year. The Democrats had ample reason to want to settle scores, even though Wright hadn’t yet resigned.

My article made it clear that Barry’s book is a detailed, first-hand account of Wright’s speakership, and it seems inconceivable that any reader would assume from my review that the book was a conventional biography.

I did not say that Wright’s involvement in Central American peace negotiations was “almost quaint”; I used those words to describe Barry’s repeated assertions of the supreme importance of aid to the contras. Barry was writing before the events of 1989 and 1990 in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East. At that time, the contra war looked like the central American foreign-policy episode of the last few years, but in view of all that has happened since Barry wrote his book, it now seems less than that.

If Barry was toning down his prose when he wrote The Ambition and the Power, I wonder how he would have sounded had he really let loose—for example, in this passage from his introduction:

This is a book about power and ambition. Washington lies at the epicenter of power. All force collides here. In Washington resides the power to take money and spend money, the power to decide what people can do and what people cannot do, the power to make a nation strong or weak, the power to wage war or make peace. The ambition belongs to many men, but none more than to Jim Wright, who burned for a place in history. He would use the 100th Congress of the United States, convened during the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution, to earn it. He would rise up and fill the sky with lightning bolts, and he would become a target for them.

I’m sorry that Mary Connell drew from my review an impression so different from the one I intended to give. To answer some of her specific complaints: her brother was in the Army Air Corps, according to John Barry; there was no “Air Force” then. I said that Ms. Connell wrote press releases for the DCCC, when actually she wrote fund-raising letters. I was wrong to add “Incorporated” to the name of James Wright, Sr.’s company. That Speaker Wright sold his ranch to help retire some of his campaign debt doesn’t contradict anything I said. My characterizations of James Wright, Sr. as having moved from job to job and of James Wright, Jr. as having been a traveling salesman are, I believe, amply supported by Barry’s book.

In several other places Ms. Connell has misread what I wrote. When she quotes what I said about her brother’s intellectual equipment, she leaves out a key phrase. Here is the rest of the wording: “Wright lacks the intellectual equipment that most matters in an important American politician….” I was calling attention to a shortcoming of Wright’s as a politician, not as an intellectual. Ronald Reagan has the intellectual talent I’m referring to, but nobody would accuse him of being an intellectual. Similarly, when I said Wright should have learned more about the world of policy intellectuals, I meant that doing so would have helped strengthen his hand politically. I didn’t say, or mean, that he lacked the brains for it, or that he should have hung around with columnists rather than pass legislation.

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