On May 31, 1989, after delivering a detailed and impassioned response to ethics allegations brought against him, Rep. Jim Wright of Fort Worth resigned as speaker of the House of Representatives.
“I’m going to make you a proposition,” Wright said that day, speaking extemporaneously before a national television audience and beneath the searing lights of the House chamber. “Let me give you back this job you gave to me, as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown up among us.”
Two months before, Senate Democrats had scuttled the nomination of Republican Sen. John Tower for defense secretary. Citing details of his personal finances, House Republicans had come after Wright, the prominent Democrat, who would always insist that he had not broken House rules.
But with his dramatic gesture, becoming the first House speaker in history to resign, Wright hoped to inspire an end to a time when “vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate, when negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation, when members of both parties become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party,” he said in his resignation speech.
“All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end,” he said. “There has been enough of it.”
Members of both parties rose in a thunderous ovation.
Then nothing changed.
Last week, nearly a quarter-century later, the 91-year-old Wright conceded he “may have made a gross misjudgment.” Rather than putting an end to political cannibalism, Wright’s resignation was just the beginning of crass political warfare that has intensified in the years since.
“Absolutely. I think I miscalculated,” he said Monday at TCU, where he still keeps an office and shows up most days to work. “Maybe I was attributing to myself a greater influence than I had … that members would change their attitudes toward one another because of what I did.”
On Tuesday, Wright will receive Fort Worth’s most prestigious civic honor, the Golden Deeds Award given by the Exchange Club. In a long interview Monday, he reflected on the award, 34 years in Congress and life in the quarter-century since his political career ended.
He also spoke publicly for the first time about his change of heart regarding his resignation.
“I have told one or two people privately,” he said. “It’s useless. I can’t go back and change it.”
But if he could, knowing how American politics has played out, Wright said he might have taken a different course.
“I think I probably would not have retired,” he said. “I think I would have seen it through and gone through the ignominy of having it heard and addressed.”
Friends say now that Wright has always remained remarkably free of rancor and unwilling to speak ill of his political enemies. They include former Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, who filed the original ethics complaint against Wright. To his TCU students in his popular class, Congress and the Presidents, he maintained that American democracy “is the best form of self-government ever created by the mind and purpose of man.”
“He has risen completely above,” said Pete Geren, who succeeded Wright in representing the 12th Congressional District. “He has not let bitterness define the rest of his life and it is a wonderful tribute to his character and his spirit of optimism.”
After resigning, Wright could have remained in Washington, D.C., and commanded huge fees as a lobbyist, Geren said.
“He could have printed money,” Geren said. “Instead, he came back to Fort Worth to be a teacher. To me, more than anything, that points to his essential character.”
‘This is a New Day’
In 1924, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Publisher Amon G. Carter Sr. was the first winner of the Golden Deeds Award. Except for the years during World War II, it has been awarded every year since, honoring a long list of Fort Worth’s most prominent citizens.
In his office last week, Wright smiled at the mention of Carter’s name.
As a 19-year-old, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wright volunteered for the Army Air Forces and flew combat missions in the South Pacific. After the war, he served as the young mayor of Weatherford. And in 1954, he took on incumbent Rep. Wingate Lucas in a five-county congressional district that included Fort Worth and Weatherford.
Lucas was supported by Carter, Fort Worth’s legendary power broker. Two days before the summer Democratic primary, which would essentially determine the next representative, the Star-Telegram endorsed Lucas in a front-page editorial.
“I didn’t have any other alternative,” Wright said. “The only way to respond to a front-page ad by Mr. Carter would be a full-page ad in his newspaper. I gave him a check for nine hundred and some odd dollars. I learned later from a friend who did some legal work for the paper that a group of them came up to see Mr. Carter to find out if he was going to use the ad. He read it, and his only question was, ‘Do you think his check is good?’ ”
“Open Letter to Mr. Amon G. Carter,” the ad read. “You have at last met a man, Mr. Carter, who is not afraid of you. The people are tired of ‘One-man Rule.’ This is a New Day.”
Wright won the election convincingly.
“I would in no way diminish the stature of that man [Carter],” Wright said Monday. “But if I couldn’t ride with him, I’d have to do it against him.”
Mr. Wright goes to Washington
When he went to Washington, the young congressman became the protege of another powerful Texan, House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
“He meant a great deal to me,” Wright said. “His teaching was excellent. Rayburn was a real master in the use of words and language.”
Wright recalled a meeting with Rayburn in 1957, when the first civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction was being debated.
“He sent a page to get me. I was having a smoke,” Wright said, laughing. “I came down and I remember exactly what he said. ‘Jim, I think you want to vote for this bill. I know you’re getting an awful lot of mean, vituperative mail threatening you with all sorts of retribution if you do. But I think you’re a big enough man to overcome that. I know you’ll be proud in future years if you did.’
“What are you going to say?” Wright said, smiling. “ ‘Oh, Mr. Speaker. I’m not a big enough man.’ Happily I did vote for it.”
He also spoke of a time when ideological adversaries on Capitol Hill could put aside their differences at the end of the day. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat, would regularly share drinks in the White House. It was said that Reagan aide Jim Baker and Wright were chaperons, there to ensure no major policy decisions were made after too many cocktails.
“That’s a slight exaggeration,” Wright said, chuckling. “Some of that happened.”
He agreed that it’s hard to imagine President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner needing chaperons.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did?” Wright said.
In another example of “good ambiance” between political opponents, Wright remembered receiving a telephone call from Reagan, then in Iceland to negotiate nuclear arms reduction with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A short time before, House lawmakers had voted to cut funding for a floundering missile project.
“I’m worried you’re going to get rid of that project,” Reagan told Wright.
“Yes sir, Mr. President,” Wright said. “We’ve already voted. It’s not working.”
“Now, I understand that,” Reagan said. “Please do me a favor if you can. Don’t let them take that out. I want to use it as a bargaining chip.”
Wright laughed again at the memory.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ ” he recalled. “We went along and left it in until Gorbachev agreed to [a concession] too. That kind of stuff happened.”
Respect is missing
Since his resignation, Wright has been a sought-after lecturer and has written several books. His course at TCU, taught in the fall semester, was among the most popular on campus until failing eyesight forced him to stop teaching three years ago.
He said he taught his students that “you can achieve a great deal more for America by achieving an atmosphere and an ambiance of mutual respect and friendship among members.”
“If you can accept the idea that your intellectual adversary is just as honorable and just as well-intentioned as you are, and he or she is equally entitled to respect, that’s an important part of it,” Wright said. “It’s missing today.”
It was also missing in 1988, when Gingrich first raised allegations that Wright had violated House ethics rules.
“They were not huge charges, and in previous generations that could have been finessed within the House,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU who has collaborated with Wright on several books. “The mistake he made was that every waking hour was devoted to his work. He worked 80-hour weeks and he was probably not attentive to the details of his own finances. That made him vulnerable to ethics charges.”
In essence, Wright was accused of using his wife’s employment at a Fort Worth company and royalties from one of his books to circumvent House limits on outside earnings. In the beginning, the speaker mostly ignored the charges, believing them to be without merit.
“The reality was he fell afoul of the 24-hour news cycle,” Riddlesperger said. “The politics of gotcha-ism, or whatever you want to call it, he never really understood. With the 24-hour news cycle, Newt Gingrich was more of the prototype of a politician than Jim Wright was.
“I think he was being absolutely honest when he said that he was hoping to bring back a House where people were treated as colleagues,” he said. “What we see instead is that his circumstances were in many ways just a precursor of the nastiness that characterizes House politics today.”
‘Convinced that I am right’
Wright was known as one of the finest orators of his generation, and his resignation speech is remembered as one of his best, particularly under the circumstances. For most of the hourlong address, Wright rebutted the allegations against him point by point.
“I’m convinced that I am right,” Wright said. “Have I been too partisan, too insistent on my own way? Perhaps. If I’ve offended anybody in the other party, I’m sorry. I … would not have done so intentionally.
“Let’s not try to get even with each other,” he concluded. “Republicans, please don’t get in your head you need to get somebody else because of John Tower. Democrats, please don’t feel that you need to get somebody on the other side because of me. We ought to be more mature than that. Let’s restore to this institution the rightful priorities of what’s good for this country.”
Then, for the next 24 years, he watched the American government deteriorate even further into incivility.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Wright said last week when asked what might change the tenor of American politics.
“Unless there is a widespread public outcry demanding a cessation of all this foolishness, trying to make bums out of one another’s colleagues. I don’t have high expectations, but I strongly wish it could, because it was a wonderful institution.”