Fort Worth

Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright dies

Jim Wright Tribute

Dignitaries pay tribute to House Speaker Jim Wright for a presentation at the JFK 50th Commemorative Breakfast at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce in 2013. (Video by Parker Vandergriff/Courtesy-Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce)
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Dignitaries pay tribute to House Speaker Jim Wright for a presentation at the JFK 50th Commemorative Breakfast at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce in 2013. (Video by Parker Vandergriff/Courtesy-Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce)

In 1939, one of Jim Wright’s classmates penned a prescient note in the high school yearbook, predicting that, in 1955, “Congressman Wright” would deliver “the most erudite speech heard in the Congressional Hall.”

Sixteen years later, in 1955, Mr. Wright arrived in Washington as the newly elected U.S. representative from the 12th District of Texas. It was the beginning of a 34-year congressional career that fulfilled a boyhood dream and ended with his becoming the 48th speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Even after that part of his career collapsed in 1989, Mr. Wright portrayed himself as a lucky man. “I got to do in life what I set out to do,” he said repeatedly.

For the next quarter-century, Mr. Wright continued to be active in the community, teaching at TCU, writing columns for the Star-Telegram and serving as a political oracle.

Mr. Wright died about 12:45 a.m. Wednesday at a Fort Worth care center. He was 92.

“Jim represented the people of his beloved Texas for over three decades,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “He was a committed public leader and a proud World War II veteran who dedicated much of his life to serving his country.”

Interactive timeline: The life and times of Jim Wright

At the height of his power, he fortified his hometown with millions of dollars in government pork, from defense jobs to water projects. President John F. Kennedy once called Fort Worth “the best-represented city” in America.

“Speaker Jim Wright’s footprint in Fort Worth and North Texas is large,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, the Republican who now represents the 12th District. “He was instrumental in projects that helped build this state and particularly North Texas to the prominent place it holds today.”

Former President George H.W. Bush saluted Wright’s career. “We didn’t often agree on the issues during our time in Washington, but we did share both a deep and abiding love for this country as well as a commitment to service,” he said.

Long after he left Washington, Mr. Wright’s name was often repeated in the news because of the Wright Amendment — the federal law that limited airline service at Dallas Love Field for nearly 35 years to protect the newer Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Old-school mold

In many respects, Mr. Wright was one of the last practitioners of old-school Texas politics from the lineage of Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn and John Connally.

He was a skilled backroom negotiator, a captivating storyteller and a persuasive orator. His bushy eyebrows, broad grin and twangy Texas accent were enduring trademarks.

Mr. Wright became House speaker in January 1987. His activist leadership resulted in early successes, including a bipartisan Central American peace plan that ended a decade of turbulence in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

But his effectiveness was eroded by a House ethics investigation into complaints that Mr. Wright violated House rules through outside business dealings. While Mr. Wright steadfastly denied wrongdoing, the furor virtually halted business in the House.

On May 31, 1989, after weeks of soul-searching, Mr. Wright stood at the House podium and relinquished the speakership, saying he could no longer lead effectively.

“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,” Mr. Wright told colleagues, his voice choked with emotion. “I don’t want to be a party to tearing up this institution. I love it.”

Mr. Wright and his wife, Betty, returned to Fort Worth. He settled into what he said was a satisfying routine that included giving lectures, writing books and teaching a government course at TCU. Betty Wright, a former professional dancer, took tap-dance lessons.

He said they eventually came to consider the forced move from stress-filled Washington a blessing in disguise.

Dignitaries pay tribute to House Speaker Jim Wright for a presentation at the JFK 50th Commemorative Breakfast at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce in 2013. (Video by Parker Vandergriff/Courtesy-Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce)

In 1991, Mr. Wright faced a life-threatening scare when he was diagnosed with mouth cancer. Doctors removed the tumor and later declared Mr. Wright fully recovered, although the operation left him with a slur in his speech. Mr. Wright sometimes joked that he sounded like a man who “had a drink or two.”

In 2013, Mr. Wright was denied a voter ID card, drawing national attention to a new law enacted by the Republican-led Texas Legislature.

“I earnestly hope these unduly stringent requirements on voters won’t dramatically reduce the number of people who vote,” he told the Star-Telegram. “I think they will reduce the number to some extent.”

Within days, he got an ID and was able to cast a ballot in that year’s election.

In the beginning

James Claude Wright Jr. was born on Dec. 22, 1922, the first of three children of James Claude Wright Sr., a former middleweight boxer and self-made businessman, and Marie Lyster Wright.

His father descended from hardscrabble families from western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. His mother was the daughter of an English aristocrat.

Mr. Wright attended public schools in nine towns in Texas and Oklahoma as his father moved from job to job before starting a lucrative nationwide business that staged sales promotions for small-town businesses.

Proud, handsome and energetic, the older Wright instilled in his son and two daughters a sense of fair play and self-achievement and a love of books, poetry, art and music. Evenings in the Wright household were drawn from a Victorian parlor setting, with singalongs and poetry readings around the piano, Mr. Wright recalled.

His father gave him a punching bag and taught him to box. From age 13 until he was a young adult, Mr. Wright won dozens of Golden Gloves matches — far more than he lost — and was a district champ in Oklahoma. Years later, as a U.S. representative in his early 40s, he trained for an exhibition fight against heavyweight champ Joe Frazier before Speaker John McCormack scrapped the match as “undignified.”

At Adamson High School in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, Mr. Wright became a leader in athletics, academics and school politics. At 14, influenced by his success as a student debater, he abandoned his goal of becoming a football coach and set his sights on becoming a member of Congress.

While attending Weatherford Junior College, he met his first wife, Mary Ethelyn “Mab” Lemons. They were married for 30 years, divorcing in 1972.

He left Weatherford to attend the University of Texas, but the outbreak of World War II permanently disrupted his college education. Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and later served in the Pacific theater as a B-24 bombardier.

In March 1944, he took a Greyhound back to Texas, more intent than ever to begin his career in politics.

He landed a well-paying job as Fort Worth representative for the National Federation of Small Business and began to draw attention on the Rotary Club circuit with speeches protesting the firing of University of Texas President Homer Rainey.

Political start

Mr. Wright’s springboard into politics was the Young Democrats, which he helped organize to advocate a minimum wage, a world police force, medical care for the elderly and other controversial issues.

With “Red Scare” fears rising, some conservatives viewed the organization as a hotbed of radical thought. In a confrontation at a VFW Hall, a drunk called Mr. Wright a “commie sonofabitch” and Mr. Wright decked his antagonist with seven quick punches.

In 1946, Mr. Wright, then 24, won election to the Texas House from Parker County and quickly established himself as a liberal Don Quixote with failed efforts to finance new social services by taxing big oil, gas and sulfur producers.

On July 7, 1948, Mr. Wright was taking an evening off from campaigning for a second term when a friend burst into his home with news that one of Mr. Wright’s two opponents had been shot.

Eugene Miller, a former state senator and zealous anti-communist advocate, was dying at a Weatherford hospital. By his account, a man had called Miller into his front yard, shot him at close range in the leg and chest, then sped away with two companions in a late-model Chevrolet.

Miller said the shooting was the work of communist “henchmen,” leading deathbed witnesses to conclude that Miller was trying to implicate Mr. Wright. Texas Ranger George Roach said months of investigation found no evidence linking Mr. Wright to the killing and indicated that Miller might have been slain over gambling debts. The case was never solved.

Nevertheless, Miller’s slaying ignited countywide rumors that Mr. Wright was a killer and suddenly transformed the front-runner into an underdog against the other opponent, Floyd Bradshaw. Mr. Wright desperately tried to regain momentum with an election-eve ad deploring communism and proclaiming support for the “Southern tradition of segregation.” But he lost by 38 votes.

The defeat contributed to a tendency to be overcautious in future political races. But he quickly rebounded by winning election as the “boy mayor” of Weatherford at age 27.

After two terms as mayor, Mr. Wright was reaching a crossroads. He spent Sundays preaching at a small Presbyterian church in Granbury and seriously considered an offer to take one of the denomination’s top administrative posts in Texas.

Elected to Congress

But his political ambitions prevailed. In 1954, he entered the Democratic primary against Rep. Wingate Lucas in the five-county congressional district that included Fort Worth and Weatherford. Mr. Wright regarded the contest as a test of his Presbyterian fatalism: If he won, he told himself, it was his destiny to be a member of Congress.

The race was more than man against man. Lucas was an eight-year incumbent who carried the blessings and financial support of Amon Carter, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the patriarch of Fort Worth. Carter had snubbed Mr. Wright several years earlier at a political function and was intent on derailing the political upstart from Weatherford.

Desperately searching for a big play, Mr. Wright wrote his “Open Letter to Mr. Amon G. Carter,” a $974.40 advertisement in the Star-Telegram. “You have at last met a man, Mr. Carter, who is not afraid of you,” Mr. Wright declared. “The people are tired of ‘One-man Rule.’ This is a New Day.”

The next day, Mr. Wright carried all five counties, driving Lucas from office with 59 percent of the vote. Carter reacted by printing an open letter offering to bury the hatchet and beseeching the new representative to “hop at it in full force and good humor.”

In Washington, the Texas freshman was aided by two powerful forces from his home state — House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Rayburn placed his protege on the Public Works Committee, the clearinghouse for congressional pork. And Mr. Wright sought Johnson’s help in passing his first bill, simplifying mailing procedures for church publications.

The grueling pace of the job left little time for family. His children later described him as a caring father when he was home. But he was often away, tending to legislative business.

Three days before Christmas 1958, an infant son, Parker Stephen, died after being diagnosed with Down syndrome. Mr. Wright described it as the “hardest thing I ever had to endure” and said he cried as he knelt in a hospital parking lot to tell his other children of the death.

Mr. Wright plunged deeper into his political career. When Johnson left his Texas Senate seat to become vice president, Mr. Wright jumped into the race to succeed him, the first entry in a political field of 71. He came in third, barely missing the runoff that Republican John Tower went on to win.

The loss, financial problems and the pain of their son’s death strained the Wrights’ marriage, resulting in divorce in 1972. The same year, he married congressional aide Betty Hay.

Majority leader

In down moments, Mr. Wright talked openly of quitting Congress to become a minister or teacher. But he persevered, rising in power as Texas gained clout in Washington during the Johnson presidency. In 1976, he ran for House majority leader and won by one vote.

Mr. Wright found himself in an unaccustomed goldfish bowl. His wife resigned her $25,000-a-year job on the Public Works Committee after the press raised questions of possible nepotism.

His financial tangles also came under press scrutiny. Two months after the House vote, he announced that he was voluntarily paying $49,250 to the IRS because his personal and campaign debts, dating back 16 years, had become “inseparably entwined.” Federal law requires that income tax be paid on personal use of campaign money.

Mr. Wright faced the hardest re-election battle of his career in 1980, when Republicans sought to capitalize on the growing tide of conservatism to bring down the powerful Democrat. Compounding his problems were reports that he was invited into an oil well investment after using his influence to try to protect the Middle East holdings of an oil-rich constituent, Fort Worth’s Moncrief family.

The 1980 conservative landslide brought Ronald Reagan into the White House and conservative Democrats, including Texans, bucked their party to help pass Reagan’s economic programs. Mr. Wright was powerless to stop them. Angry and embarrassed, he fleetingly considered quitting Congress.

“It’s no fun to lose,” he wrote in his diary. “It does no good for my reputation as majority leader.”

But the Democrats expanded their majority with subsequent election victories, bolstering Mr. Wright’s political base for his bid to succeed Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts as speaker. As the No. 2 Democrat, Mr. Wright was the presumed heir apparent when the affable Boston Irishman stepped aside, but there had been persistent talk of a possible challenge from the Democrats’ liberal wing.

The challenge never materialized.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price talks about former House Speaker Jim Wright and his legacy. (Video by Rodger Mallison/Star-Telegram)

Mr. Wright took office as speaker on Jan. 6, 1987, at the outset of the 100th Congress and quickly embarked on an ambitious agenda that had the potential to make him one of the most powerful and successful speakers in history. Democrats were back in control of both houses of Congress, and President Reagan was engulfed in the Iran-contra scandal.

During his first six months in office, Congress overrode two presidential vetoes while passing bills on clean water, highways, aid to the homeless and education benefits for military personnel. Lawmakers also passed all 13 appropriations bills for the first time since 1948.

Amid the flurry of early successes, Mr. Wright paid little attention to an ethics complaint filed by Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a maverick Republican whom Mr. Wright once dismissed as a troublesome “gnat.” Gingrich called Mr. Wright the most corrupt speaker of the 20th century, brandishing old newspaper articles about questionable financial deals dating back more than a decade.

Even after the House ethics committee launched a formal investigation on June 10, 1988, virtually no one was willing to predict that it would bring down the speaker.

Mr. Wright confidently predicted: “If people remember it at all, they will remember it in its rightful context as an outrageous and wickedly motivated effort to hurt the speaker’s reputation.”

Changing momentum

But the momentum changed virtually overnight in April 1989 when the 12-member ethics panel — known formally as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — ended its 10-month investigation by citing Mr. Wright with 69 violations of House rules involving his finances.

The findings were rooted in Mr. Wright’s associations with two longtime friends in Fort Worth: George Mallick, a Fort Worth developer, and Carlos Moore, a former newspaper printer who worked on Mr. Wright’s first congressional campaign in 1954.

The committee accused Mallick of making gifts to the Wrights in the form of the use of a Fort Worth condominium, a 1979 Cadillac Seville and an $18,000-a-year salary to Betty Wright. The speaker was further accused of evading House limits on outside income through bulk sales of a 1984 book published by Moore, Reflections of a Public Man.

Throughout, Mr. Wright asserted his innocence while trying to carry out his duties. He worked with President Bush in early 1989 to produce what he considered the capstone of his congressional career — a Central American peace plan ending the U.S. military commitment to the Nicaraguan rebels.

But his political base rapidly evaporated, and he began to see no choice but to resign.

In general, Mr. Wright appeared genuinely happy to be out of the Washington fishbowl, but he never completely severed his ties to the nation’s capital. In 1993, he returned to Washington to promote his book Worth It All, an autobiographical account of his peacemaking activities in Central America.

In the book, Mr. Wright said hard-line conservatives orchestrated his political downfall in retaliation for his activism in the Central American peace process.

“As for me, except for some errors in judgment that are clearer now in hindsight, I think I’d do it all again,” Mr. Wright reflected in the book. “I look in the mirror every morning and I smile.”

Remembrances

“We remember Speaker Wright today for his lifelong commitment to public service, from flying combat missions over the South Pacific to fighting for Fort Worth on the House floor,” said the present House speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio.

“Speaker Wright understood as well as anyone this institution’s closeness to the people, calling the House ‘the raw essence of the nation.’ It is in this spirit that we send our deepest condolences to his family and community.”

Mr. Wright was honored with a moment of silence in the Texas House of Representatives.

“This is the loss of a great man — and a lot of Fort Worth history,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said. “He has left a long legacy of being a tremendous public servant.

Former Mayor Mike Moncrief said the city and the country lost a good friend.

Despite the power he once held, Mr. Wright never became too busy to stop and shake hands, give people hugs or ask how they were doing.

“Jim never forgot about the least of us or the most of us,” Moncrief said. “He leaves a big pair of boots that probably will never be filled.”

Besides his wife, survivors include a son, James C. Wright III; daughters Virginia Sue McGuire, Kay Wright Nelson and Alicia Marie Carnes; a sister, Betty Lee Wright; 15 grandchildren; and 24 great-grandchildren.

Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report.

Services

Funeral: 2 p.m. Monday at First United Methodist Church, 800 W. Fifth St., Fort Worth

Burial: City Greenwood Cemetery, Weatherford

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