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Remembering A Former House Speaker Whose Fall Signaled New Era Of Polarization

Former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas in 2005. He died Wednesday at the age of 92.
Yuri Gripas
Former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas in 2005. He died Wednesday at the age of 92.

Jim Wright occupies a kind of shadow territory in Washington memory. He rose to be speaker of the House, arguably the second most powerful job in the country. For a season he challenged the authority of the president on foreign policy. A master of the internal politics and practices of the House, Wright once seemed likely to rule that world for as long as the Democrats held the majority — which he and they and most everyone else expected to last forever.

Yet when word of his death reached Washington on Wednesday, it took a moment to remember these things about James Claude Wright Jr., who lived to be 92.

The short line of his bio is that he made history as the first speaker to resign under pressure. And under pressure he was. His speech to the hushed chamber on June 30, 1989, is an indelible scene for all who witnessed it. The phrase most recalled — "mindless cannibalism" — was his description of the hyperpartisan political struggles then gripping Congress, and Washington more generally. Wright thought it had become so bad it scarcely could get worse. He miscalculated on that, as he came to see later.

Wright was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of a traveling salesman. He got interested in politics at 13 while nursing a football injury. At 15, he was making speeches for candidates. He was an old-school orator, an old-school Texas Tory Democrat, and most of all an old-school pol. He smiled a lot, and he was a good friend to the oil and gas industry and to people who build roads and such things for a living. Elected to the House in 1955 at the age of 32, Wright rose the old-fashioned way through committee, eventually becoming Public Works chairman before entering the leadership.

In his short 30-month stint with the big gavel, Wright was able to move a remarkable amount of legislation through Congress and to the desks of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Some of that was due to the big backlog of bills that had built up while the Senate had a Republican majority from 1981 through 1986. When the Democrats again controlled the Senate in 1987 they, and newly minted Speaker Wright, got busy on a number of fronts, including trade and health and energy policy. He and his leadership team prided themselves on never losing a floor vote.

Wright (right), then House speaker, is seated behind President Reagan and next to Vice President George H.W. Bush during the 1988 State of the Union address.
Bob Daugherty / AP
Wright (right), then House speaker, is seated behind President Reagan and next to Vice President George H.W. Bush during the 1988 State of the Union address.

But the big clash in the media was the Hill's investigation of the Reagan administration's backing of anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua known as the Contras. This took the form of an investigative committee of the House and Senate and also the form of Wright's active resistance to Reagan's efforts in the hemisphere. Even by enunciating a foreign policy view at odds with that of the White House, Wright incurred the wrath of many on the right — including in the Texas district he represented for 34 years.

But it was after Reagan had finished his two terms in office that Wright got into trouble where it would hurt him — in the House itself. A pay raise had been arranged for members of Congress, triggered by a date on the calendar and without any actual vote on the floor. When this became widely known, and predictably unpopular, Wright yielded to the outcry and allowed a vote — which members devoutly wished to avoid. Some never forgave him.

Then, in March 1989, the Senate rejected the nomination of former Sen. John Tower of Texas to be secretary of defense. Tower, a Republican, was subjected to attacks for his drinking and dating habits. And while the attacks were initiated by a conservative activist, the votes against Wright were primarily those of Democrats (many of whom disliked him personally).

Wright and his defenders felt there was blowback in the way his opponents in the House pursued his peccadilloes, which included a book deal and a job for his wife, that carried at least the appearance of evading limits on outside income for House members. But the main driver of Wright's ethics case was not the Senate or the Tower dust-up, but a rank-and-file member of the House named Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich had orchestrated and fueled a long-running assault on the ethics of the House Democrats, concentrating his fire on Wright as their leader. When asked what his personal feelings were toward Gingrich, Wright once said they were similar to the feelings a fire hydrant might have toward a dog.

Nonetheless, Gingrich had support from Common Cause and, ultimately, the House Ethics Committee. And in a stunning reversal in an even more stunning brief time, Wright found himself in the well of the House, addressing his colleagues in an emotional farewell.

Gingrich went on that same year to become the House Republican whip, the post from which he would eventually be elevated to speaker. That would happen in 1994, the year the GOP recaptured the majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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