As a Washington columnist, I covered and got to know Jim Wright and his wife, Betty, during the final 20 years of the 34 he served in Congress culminating with his 1989 resignation in the midst of accusations of ethics violations. I once had the pleasure of introducing him when he was a guest speaker at the Women’s National Democratic Club in 1993. Former House Speaker Jim Wright died today at 92.
His final speech to Congress he pleaded for an end to the “mindless cannibalism” that had taken over the Congress. I watched from the Press Gallery as his words drew a bi-partisan standing ovation. Yet, ironically, it was his resignation that paved the way for the very partisan Newt Gingrich to ascend to the Speakership.
Wright, a Congressional leader without a college degree, was far more literate especially when it came to revealing his skills as a wordsmith than most of his colleagues. Not only was he an eloquent orator but he penned a newspaper column and several books. After his retirement from Congress he taught a course at Texas Christian University on the relationship between the Congress, which he knew intimately, and the White House.
It was fortunate for all of us in many ways that young Jim Wright injured his knee in high school. That side-lined him from his life’s ambition to be a football coach, although he would have been a good one. Jim’s football coach was also his high school world history teacher in Weatherford, Texas. After taking that world history course– to Jim’s surprise– he liked foreign affairs so much that his interests turned to politics. It was during his junior year that he made a decision to serve in Congress.
After flying combat missions in the South Pacific during WWII for which he was awarded the distinguished Flying Cross, he was elected to the Texas legislature. In 1955, he was elected to Congress from Fort Worth, Tex. He served in the House leadership for a dozen years, first as Majority Leader (1977 to 1986) and then as Speaker (1987 to 1989). His election as Majority Leader was by a single vote margin, but later more Democrat Members of the House claimed credit for his victory than the total number of votes actually cast for him.
During his political career, Jim Wright carried on the great traditions of FDR. He kept up with the changing times, never losing sight of the soul of the Democratic party. His efforts to end bloodshed in Nicaragua and El Salvador are well-documented. He was always a bi-partisan foreign policy advocate. He personally knew every Mexican president and was very involved in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
On the personal side, Speaker Wright always got as much pleasure being recognized by a taxi driver in DC as a prime minister. He was as thrilled to talk to one as the other. His colleagues knew him for playing a mean harmonica. But he is one politician who valued his privacy and spending time with his one-time staffer and later wife, Betty. Betty was a professional tap dancer. Betty, reflecting on his kinder and gentler side, once told me that the Speaker was very romantic and even used his renowned verbal talents to write poetry to her.
Wright was one of the best story-tellers I know and never at a loss for words. He once confided to me that the only time he had stage fright was before going on the Larry King Show. He joked that he was afraid that “Larry wouldn’t have the right questions for his answers.”
I will always remember Jim Wright as a loyal Democrat and friend. For me, he will always be “Mr. Speaker.”
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