The Passing of a “Public Man”

by John Lawrence

Former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, who died on Wednesday, described himself in the title of the autobiography that sealed his downfall as “a public man.” As one who served in both state and federal government for more than 30 years, he surely was one. But he was also a man of contradictions and surprises whose rise to leadership in the House was a singularly discordant act amid the reform fervor of the 1970s.

Most of the obituaries focused on Wright’s assertiveness in foreign policy, particular his willingness to act largely independent of the pro-war Reagan Administration to negotiate with combatants in Nicaragua during the late 1980s. Some in Congress lacerated him for usurping the presidential role – even suggesting that he violated the 1790s Logan Act which bars private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

Wright’s aggressiveness embodied an important era in which Congress, reacting to the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, sought to reestablish itself as what the Founders envisioned, a co-equal branch of government. The 1973 War Powers Resolution and the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974 reflected a determination by young, reformist legislators to challenge automatic deference to the White House, regardless of party. The same sentiment was later espoused by Newt Gingrich who asserted, “ One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.” The outgrowth of that bipartisan objective over the past 40 years can be witnessed in the current debate over trade and Iran.

Wright was not a product of the reform movement that swept the House in the 1970s. Indeed, as the number of young, progressive, reformist Democrats steadily rose after the 1958 election, Wright was a largely absent figure. He seemed almost out of touch with his times. In an era of expanding attention to equal rights, he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights bill (though he had supported anti-lynching legislation during his brief career in the Texas Legislature). As the country reeled from the Arab oil embargo and energy reform emerged as a powerful issue, Wright remained a loyal defender of his home state’s industry. As the Congress increasingly became critical of the war in Vietnam, Wright sponsored a resolution in 1969 endorsing Nixon’s escalation. During the great fights to challenge the power of the Conservative Coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans, Wright played no significant role, preferring to dole out pork barrel favors to helpful Members from his senior position on the Public Works Committee.

It was one of the great anomalous moments of the post-Watergate era when Wright, who held only a minor assistant Whip position, won the 1976 race to become Majority Leader, a position vacated by Tip O’Neill as he ascended to the speakership. Wright was not even supposed to be a factor in that election, let alone the winner. The main combatants were the decade’s two leading spokesmen for House reform: Phillip Burton of California and Richard Bolling of Missouri, and they detested each other.

Burton was the tactical genius, the Machiavellian, three-dimensional chess player who could rewrite Caucus rules, devise an amendment strategy, and redesign congressional district lines from his darkened Longworth building lair, a tumbler full of vodka firmly in hand at 5 pm. Burton relished placing expanded autonomy in the hands of younger subcommittees who could defy autocratic chairmen. He had no problem cutting deals with conservatives in pursuit of a larger good, although his willingness to do so raised suspicions among some young liberals. Burton envisioned the Democratic Caucus, which he conveniently chaired, as the legislative and strategic center of the House.

Bolling was a severe, cerebral reformer, author of manifestos of reform like House Out of Order (1965) that advocated a strengthening of the role of leadership and a tighter control by the Rules Committee, on which he conveniently served. If Burton was gratuitously insulting and confrontational, Bolling was universally perceived as arrogant and insufferable. In 1975, he asked Rep. Dave Obey (WI), a supporter, “If I ran for Majority Leader,” which everyone knew he would, “what’s first thing I should do?” Obey replied, “Stop being such a prick,” to which Bolling replied, “I think you are absolutely right.”

Burton and Bolling squared off against Wright, a late entrant (and Whip John McFall who had no chance whatsoever). In a series of votes that remain the subject of debate, accusation, counter-accusation and speculation to this day, McFall and then Bolling were eliminated, and Wright defeated Burton by a single vote on the third ballot. Who cast the decisive vote, who threw votes to whom, whose vote was deemed invalid, who double-crossed whom will be debated as long as there are congressional historians to write the story. Not even all the participants were sure what had happened. One report recalls Dan Rostenkowski, a Wright nominator, expressing amazement at the outcome to Burton and then bursting into tears.

The details of that crucial election were little discussed in Wright’s obituaries, but his victory had profound ramifications for the House. He served as Majority Leader for a decade under O’Neill, during which the New Republic called him the “last of the old-time Democrats.” But to the surprise of many, he largely shed his earlier reputation as a slick, smooth-talking Texan, emerging as a staunch defender of the House’s prerogatives. When he advanced to the Speakership in 1987, he made clear he was not interested in extending the bonhomie that sometimes characterized O’Neill’s relationship with Ronald Reagan. Instead, he acted and sounded like the toughest of the 1970s reformers, challenging the right of a president to again maneuver the nation secretly into a war, and he earned the liberals’ praise. George Miller (CA), one of Burton’s strongest allies, observed that by standing up for his Members, Wright ‘s “risk taking has given the House back some of its pride.”

Wright was also prepared to assert himself within the House itself. As a new generation of aggressive Republicans, their eyes on a future House majority, used the liberal floor rules to offer amendments that exposed vulnerable Democrats to district criticism, Wright began “tightening the screws,” according to his biographer, shutting off many of the legislative opportunities granted Members in the 1970s reforms. Wright’s action reduced the number of politically damaging votes, but gave credence to the Republican charges of autocratic Democratic rule that could only be remedied by ending their nearly 40 year control of the House. To this day, while most Democrats point to Gingrich’s hyperbolic tactics as the source of contemporary hyper-partisanship, many Republicans believe, as one senior GOP Member recently told me, that it was Wright who “really poisoned the well.”

When Wright was brought down in 1989 amid multiple charges of wrongdoing and vicious assault from Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, he gave a poignant farewell speech to the House. Yielding his gavel and his seat, he pleaded for a reduction in the partisanship and bitterness that had crept into House deliberations and interpersonal relations.

“It is grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate and negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation,” Wright said a quarter century ago, before the Koch brothers and Citizens United and screeching cable TV and talk radio obliterated most civil discourse. “In God’s name, that’s not what this institution is supposed to be all about. When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication and harsh personal attacks upon one another’s motives and one another’s character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate on important issues … that’s unworthy of our institution and unworthy of our American political process. All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end!! We’ve done enough of it!”

One can only marvel that, less than a decade later, when Newt Gingrich – facing serious ethics charges of his own – announced his resignation as the first Republican speaker in 40 years, he similarly referenced his distaste for the “cannibals” who preferred defeat, in pursuit of unattainable victory, to compromise.

Wright remains a controversial, contradictory, complex figure in the history of the House, but his role in seeking to regain a co-equal place for the Congress in the crucial decisions of war and peace earn him our respect and admiration. He made mistakes, he admitted, as do we all; but he served his Congress and his nation with distinction.