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.
Few of the brightest young people in Texas are eager to work on the staff of a liberal congressman in Washington. Wright’s own staff was famously third-rate. John Mack, the most notorious of his assistants, was unusual in having been convicted of bludgeoning a woman, but was typical in the sense that the peculiarity of his curriculum vitae made him wholly beholden to Wright. Craig Raupe, Wright’s best friend, rejoined the staff after having lost his job in private business because of alcoholism. John Barry reports that when Wright was majority leader, just one of his senior advisers had a bachelor’s degree. Mack was the only member of Wright’s staff who dared to disagree with him, according to Barry; the rest were terrified of him. Until very late in Wright’s career, none of his press aides was permitted to be quoted by name.
George Mair, who served briefly as one of several Wright press secretaries, all of whom had conflicting or overlapping responsibilities (Mair was “chief press officer,” but there were also a “press secretary” and a “press coordinator,” none of whom was reliably on speaking terms with the others), has written a so-far self-published memoir of his time on the staff. It gives a vividly nasty picture of the backbiting and incompetence that characterized life in the speaker’s office. The perception of Wright as tainted by scandal took on a life of its own in part because whenever the staff found out that a negative story in the press was being prepared, it would try to keep the news from Wright, so that he was never able to respond effectively. Mair himself decided to solve this problem by writing letters to important newspaper publishers accusing the reporters working on the story, often falsely, of such sins as plagiarism.
At a time when Wright’s ethics problems were just starting to become serious, Mair succeeded in arranging for him to have a private lunch with the publisher and leading editors of The New York Times. When he told the aide in charge of Wright’s schedule about it, he says, “She asked me why on earth Jim Wright would want to meet with the editors of The New York Times.” Another time, according to Mair, an aide telephoned Robert Strauss and asked him to arrange for a story in Newsweek unfriendly to Wright to be killed; Strauss refused, presumably because he realized (as the aide did not) that this would have had about the same effect as Zero Mostel’s attempt to bribe the theater critic in The Producers.
Mair’s way of jockeying for power on the staff was to enlist the support of Wright’s sister, Wright’s wife (with whom Mair would have long, scheming lunches in remote suburban restaurants), and even George Mallick. The involvement of wives, friends, and relatives in staff intrigues is one of the clearest signs of an unprofessional congressional office.
Wright’s ethical lapses were the kind of small-time sins that most House members can usually get away with, but that a politician with a national reputation ought to know he probably can’t. Wright let a Fort Worth crony of his, a printer named Carlos Moore, talk him into the idea of getting his staff to assemble a pastiche of his speeches into a little book called Reflections of a Public Man, which Moore then sold (with Wright getting an unheard of 50 percent author’s royalty), mostly in bulk orders to lobbyists who wanted something from Wright. Wright lobbied the Federal Home Loan Bank board to go easy on regulation of the savings and loan industry, a position that was disastrous and wrong on its merits—and, to make matters worse, Wright made his case to the regulators in a bullying way, and on behalf of such unsavory characters as Donald Dixon, of Vernon Savings and Loan, and Thomas Gaubert, of Independent American Savings and Loan, both now bankrupt and under indictment. Mallightco also put Betty Wright on the payroll to do virtually nothing, and let her drive a company car. The Wrights rented a Fort Worth condominium owned by the Mallicks at a below market rate. And so on.
Ideally a speaker should be willing to live on his salary, but if he isn’t, there are much more prudent ways to make money on the side, and in far greater quantities than Wright did. The new volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson shows Johnson building an immense fortune by getting a radio station license and selling advertising to businesses that needed a Washington connection. Tip O’Neill waited until he retired to make a great deal of money writing his memoirs, giving endorsements, and making speeches. Wright was brought down with pennies: the use of the company car; Betty’s job, which paid $18,000 a year; the use of the condo, which cost $21.67 a night and probably wasn’t worth much more; and the book’s royalties, which came to $55,000. As late as December 1988, when his speakership was in peril, according to Barry, Wright could not resist going, with his top aides, “to Palm Springs for a week of sun and golf as guests of tobacco and billboard advertising lobbyists.”
In his intimate circle of aides, lobbyists, and relatives, Wright has a reputation as a man of intellect, but this seems to be mostly a matter of the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Unlike most members of Congress, Wright can speak coherently and at length without a prepared text. He has memorized such works of poetry as Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” (It comes as no surprise to read in Mair’s book that Wright is a follower of a “personal success motivator” named Louis E. Tice, the creator of the “reticular activating system” and many other goal-setting techniques.) But the truth is that Wright lacks the intellectual equipment that most matters in an important American politician, the ability to communicate a sweeping version of reality that seems to explain everything. Reflections of a Public Man reveals a banality of mind and a syrupy mockprofundity that are clearly not merely a banquet-circuit pose:
Finally, Dad reached over and tousled my hair with that big hand of his and changed the subject.
Looking at the shining eyes and happy countenance of a little Mexican boy with oatmeal on his face, the captain of the National Guard said to me: “A hungry child is exactly the same the world over.”
Science tells us that an ordinary glass of water contains some tiny molecules that fell in the flood of Noah, some that floated fishing craft in the Sea of Galilee 2,000 years ago and some that washed blood from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 1944.
The engineer of Wright’s downfall, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, was in retrospect the perfect man for the job—too obscure for Wright to take seriously as threatening, and extremely gifted in the very arts that are important in modern Washington and mysterious to Wright. Gingrich was a junior congressman with little interest in legislative or committee work and a willingness to do things that his elders considered humiliating, like deliver speeches to an empty House chamber. Several reporters, notably Charles Babcock of The Washington Post, did first-rate work on Wright, but the “Wright scandal” as a Washington event was almost single-handedly generated by Gingrich and went on for almost all of Wright’s tenure as speaker. Gingrich sensed Wright’s vulnerability and assigned an aide to dig up damaging material on him (meaning, in practice, clipping negative newspaper stories), which Gingrich passed on to reporters. One paper’s story would go into the file that was sent on to the next paper. The scandal finally became an obsession of official Washington when Common Cause, after pressure from Gingrich, called for an investigation of Wright by the House Ethics Committee.
Gingrich understands the ways of the national press, and of post-Watergate Washington generally, far better than more important members of the House do. He is careful to send the staff of think tanks, op-ed pages, TV news shows, and political magazines—people Wright barely knew existed—flattering little notes. Unlike most people in elective politics these days, he has heeded Franklin Roosevelt’s old lesson, and invented a slogan to serve as an umbrella for his views: The Conservative Opportunity Society, a pleasant place where we will all live prosperously after the Liberal Welfare State is destroyed. Gingrich has perfect pitch when it comes to Washington scandals. He knows how to attract the attention of enough reporters to set in motion a high drama of investigation and cover-up beyond what the case merits. It is revealing that as Wright was falling, Gingrich, a mediocre legislator at best, was elected to the number two position in the House Republican leadership.
In his long and useful book on Wright, John Barry makes the mistake of investing heavily (and unnecessarily) in the idea of Wright as larger than life. He began his book in late 1986, when he managed to talk Wright into letting him have almost complete access to the speaker’s office for more than two years; no other journalist has come anywhere near that close to the daily life of an American politician of Wright’s rank. That George Mair considered barry an enemy, and takes the trouble to call him a “ferret-faced fool” in his book, suggests that Barry was treated as a staff member.
Finding himself inside all the closed doors that 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. From the title onward, the book is portentously presented. Overwrought and repetitive passages about the nature of power are scattered throughout: “Power was disconnected, without give, isolating, abstract and impersonal, a cutting loose.” A few pages later, “Power was white, blank; a great slick white surface, abstract, ungiving, impersonal, objective. It was the absence of heat, passion; it was pure will, isolated.”
Barry also overstates the magnitude of Wright’s achievement and ascribes to him a complexity that goes far beyond what seems warranted by the particulars of the story. Wright is a man who “had dreamed of greatness and largeness for himself and greatness and largeness for his institution,” only to be brought down by “hubris.” But isn’t Wright just a successful politician who fumbled his last big job? In a country where millions of people entertain fantasies of wealth and fame, ambition is not a defining quality of the happy few. Barry momentously points out that Wright’s sister, who writes poetry, “had once dreamed of the Nobel Prize,” but now she writes press releases for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Such details make Barry’s characters seem more out of Sherwood Anderson than Euripides.
The two main issues in which Wright was actively engaged as speaker, Nicaragua and the budget deficit, do not lend themselves well to grand, dramatic retelling. In the case of Nicaragua, Barry painstakingly records how the White House induced Wright to produce a joint peace plan, expecting the Sandinistas to reject the plan and so undercut the Democrats’ opposition to contra aid. At first the Republican plan seemed to backfire: in the late summer and early fall of 1987 Wright helped to draw up the five-nation Arias peace plan for Central America, and he began to look far more statesmanlike than Reagan. But after Wright met privately with Daniel Ortega in Washington on Veterans Day, the White House succeeded in portraying him as a reckless egomaniac, and proposed a new contraid package that, over Wright’s opposition, embarrassingly passed in Congress. Wright’s peace efforts seemed impressive at the time, but much has happened to make Barry’s assertions of their importance (“no issue mattered more than contra aid”; “the greatest clash in the twentieth century between a Speaker and a President”) seem almost quaint.
Wright’s other concern was raising taxes—in particular, the rate of the top income-tax bracket—to reduce the deficit. Here again, his position was aggressive and unpopular in the House. After Mondale’s defeat in 1984, very few Democratic politicians wanted to be on record in support of a tax increase; for a while Wright was able to seize the initiative in budget negotiations, but he wasn’t able to change income tax rates or make a real dent in the deficit. The story of Wright’s budget machinations adds up to very little. Indeed, the procession of reconciliation bills, continuing resolutions, and appropriations bills seems endless in Barry’s book; there never is a climax or a denouement. Mair’s mean-spirited observation that “while Barry was gathering facts, he didn’t know what the hell to do with them” is not altogether unjust. The Ambition and the Power gives the impression of having been gotten out too hastily—there is neither an index nor footnotes.
Still, if Barry’s faux-marble finish can be ignored, The Ambition and the Power is illuminating as an explanation of how Wright fell and how the House works. The House is a cautious, reactive, consensual institution, an exaggerated version of a state legislature. The intense battles Barry describes mostly revolve around some surprisingly minor point—a sum of a few million dollars in a bill that involves hundreds of billions, or a single word in an agreement. Most of them also take the form of votes on recondite procedural points; members dislike casting clear-cut ballots, so the leadership tries to disguise everything. For most members, personal loyalties are far more important than policy questions, because the real goals of most congressmen—reelection, delivering for the district, and rising in the committee system—are best achieved by trading favors, not by understanding issues.
Most of the time, the House is obscure and unglamorous. Television cameras are rarely around (Barry tells us that Wright, before the scandal brought him briefly to the center of Washington’s attention, tried to phone Sam Donaldson of ABC News at home one evening, but Donaldson wouldn’t take the call). Wright himself postponed a crucial vote in order to allow the members to attend a Christmas party at the White House, because he knew they would revolt if denied the chance to experience the real corridors of power.
Wright’s main mistake as speaker, Barry makes clear, was pushing the House too hard. His worst transgressions may sound minor and technical, but they were serious violations of the rules of the congressional culture, under which deals must always be honored and members must never be put in positions that might embarrass them. He deceived Robert Michel, the House minority leader, by changing the rules under which a Republican amendment was offered so that there was no chance of its actually being voted on. The members resented it when he instructed the Rules Committee to restrict their ability to offer amendments to bills, because then they couldn’t demonstrate their legislative achievements to their colleagues and to the folks back home. He inserted an unrelated welfare reform measure that members didn’t want to vote on into a budget reconciliation bill that they had to vote on. Then, when the bill failed, he took the welfare reform language out, declared that a “second legislative day” had begun, and passed the reconciliation bill, infuriating the Republicans, who considered the “second day” a trick that Wright used to snatch away one of their rare victories. He took a poll of members’ views on a pay raise, an issue on which they desperately wanted to hide their positions. He lost his temper. He publicly called one Democrat from Texas a liar, and told another to turn up his hearing aid.
Still, if Wright had never started Mallightco, he would probably still be speaker today. If Gingrich hadn’t been in the House, Wright would still be speaker. If Wright had been a little more urbane in dealing with the press, he might have outmaneuvered Gingrich. Failing all that, Barry makes a convincing case that Wright could still have saved himself if he hadn’t lost the loyalty of his colleagues. He made the Republican leaders so angry at him that they gave Gingrich free rein, even though, as Barry reports, the Republican leadership commissioned a secret review of Gingrich’s charges that dismissed them as minor and not worth pursuing. The Democrats barely lifted a finger on Wright’s behalf, partly because he was too proud and stubborn to ask for their help, partly because they felt no loyalty to him.
It seems clear that Wright had wanted to use the speakership to restore to life the old liberal wing of the Democratic party. He was drawn to combative interest-group politics, and uncomfortable with consensual measures that were supposed to help everyone at the same time, like the 1986 tax reform law, which he opposed. But the time wasn’t right. The national press corps mistrusted Wright’s kind of liberalism, seeing it as excessively influenced by lobbyists. (Gephardt’s advocacy of trade protectionism gets a bad press for similar reasons.) The 1988 campaign made it seem politically threatening to be a confessed liberal.
In the short run, Wright’s downfall may have induced Washington to back away from the recurring cycle of ethics scandals. Wright personally isn’t missed, but after he was gone the mood in Washington was like that in the final scene of a gangster movie, where the dons gather and sorrowfully conclude that the bloodshed must end. Sally Quinn, no stranger to bloodshed herself, sympathized in The Washington Post with Wright’s farewell speech, in which he decried the “mindless cannibalism” of the press. After the Democrats revenged themselves on John Tower, they let the ethics issue go. Anyway, the Bush administration consists largely of men who are already rich and don’t need to explore the gray areas of official conduct.
There may be something to the argument that ethics scandals are often a kind of reverse populism. The people brought down are usually incompletely socialized outsiders, and are replaced by more conventional people such as Gerald Ford, Tom Foley, Richard Thornburgh, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Cheney. But now that we have, for the first time in many years, an administration with a patrician cast, if matters were to go spectacularly wrong perhaps populism itself could make its comeback, opening up again the strong American vein of social resentment of the rich and their secret deals. If this were to happen it would be Jim Wright’s historical moment; too bad he won’t be in Washington to see it.
May 17, 1990