Wright expanded speaker’s reach, clashed with Reagan over Nicaragua

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Jim Wright, a hard-driving 18-term Texas Democrat who, as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, expanded the influence of the speakership into foreign affairs before resigning from elective office in 1989 amid an ethics investigation into his business dealings.

Wright, who died May 6 at age 92, was a dominant and seemingly indomitable figure in the House, where he had risen from obscure Fort Worth congressman in the 1950s to majority leader under Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts in the 1970s.

In a House career spanning 34 years, Wright thrust himself most forcefully into the limelight when he succeeded O’Neill as speaker in 1987. Fiery and intense, Wright could not have been more different from the affable, backslapping O’Neill.

Wright envisioned a muscular speakership that influenced and generated foreign policy, historically the sphere of the White House and the Senate.

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He antagonized the Reagan administration most boldly over its Central America policy, particularly aid to Nicaragua, which was suffering from a protracted civil war. Wright was crucial in brokering a deal that led to peace and democratic elections in Nicaragua.

Poised to become one of the most influential speakers in decades, Wright endured a year-long investigation by the House Ethics Committee that eroded his power and led to charges that focused on financial gain in violation of Congressional rules.

He was the fourth speaker to resign the office, but the first to step down amid allegations of ethical impropriety. His downfall was a pivotal moment in the rise of Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who led the fight for the ethics investigation, and in the House’s transformation from a proudly collegial institution to one mired in partisan rancor.

Although Wright denied the allegations and was never charged with a crime, he resigned in 1989, saying he acted to protect the House from the “mindless cannibalism” and the vitriolic partisanship fostered by the investigation.

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Wright was not someone likely to generate widespread sympathy during an ethics probe. He had a reputation as a hot-tempered micromanager, and he once nearly came to fisticuffs with a California congressman over a procedural matter.

But he endeared himself to fellow Democrats by stumping for them in their districts and raising money for their campaigns. He also held one of the most popular functions on the Hill, an annual barbecue for which he dressed as a cowboy and played the harmonica.

Although his approach to public speaking tended toward the stentorian, he relished folksy aphorisms and jokes. He memorably described the rhinoceros as one of God’s mistakes: “Here is an animal with a hide two feet thick and no apparent interest in politics. What a waste.”

Wright’s sharp mind and sharp elbows helped clear his path to power.

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“His goal was to make the speakership equal to the presidency,” said historian John Barry, whose 1989 book “The Ambition and the Power” focused on Wright. “He was certainly on the way to doing that.”

Although he often pitted himself against the Reagan administration on legislative matters, no issue brought Wright as much attention as the fight over aid to Nicaragua. It became one of the most divisive public debates in Washington.

The Reagan administration had placed the anti-Sandinista, anti-communist contra rebels in Nicaragua at the center of its Central America foreign policy, describing them as “freedom fighters.” But many Democrats, including Wright, considered the contras no better than terrorists.

In the mid-1980s, the White House found itself immersed in scandal involving illegal arms sales to Iran and illegal aid to the contras. It came to light that U.S. officials had sold weapons to Iran to win the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East and then used some of the profits to support the contras after Congress had prohibited giving them military aid.

In July 1987, a White House aide approached Wright about joining Reagan to broker a peace deal in Central America. Wright agreed, though many Democrats sensed it was a trap.

According to Barry’s book, the White House enlisted Wright’s support for a proposal it expected Nicaragua to reject, thinking it could then point to the failure of diplomacy to bolster the case for funding the contras.

After the Central Americans agreed on an accord, Wright began holding peace talks in Washington with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the archbishop of Managua, who was seen as a possible mediary in the civil war.

The White House had refused to meet with Ortega during that visit, insisting that he negotiate with the contras before any U.S. intervention. Wright scolded the Reagan administration for being “literally terrorized that peace might break out” in Central America and added that many leaders in that part of the world preferred negotiating through him because they have “the unfortunate impression that the administration treats them as inferiors.”

After the Central American leaders drafted their own peace agreement, Wright offered his unequivocal support. The accord helped end Nicaragua’s long civil war and led to democratic elections in 1990.

“He was absolutely critical,” said William LeoGrande, an expert on Latin American politics at American University. “The Central American leaders looked to Wright for mediation, for advice and for support. . . . They felt he was committed to make it work.”

Long a target of Republicans, Wright began his long descent in May 1988 after the public-interest lobby Common Cause urged a House ethics probe into sales of the speaker’s book of speeches and essays.

The allegation was that Wright circumvented House rules on outside income by accumulating about $54,000 in royalties from bulk sales of his 1984 book “Reflections of a Public Man.”

The accusation was that in lieu of campaign contributions or speaking fees, which were tightly regulated, groups with business before the House made bulk purchases of the book. House rules exempt copyright royalties.

Based on the information from Common Cause, Gingrich filed a complaint with the ethics panel with the backing of dozens of other House Republicans. Wright and Gingrich had traded insults in the past, and the Georgia congressman was initially perceived as conducing a one-man crusade against the speaker.

Then in April 1989, the ethics committee reported that it found “reason to believe” that Wright had violated the rules of congressional conduct 69 times. In addition to the charges over the book royalties, Wright was accused of taking $145,000 in gifts from a Fort Worth developer.

Wright resigned on June 1, 1989, and his chief deputy, Tom Foley of Washington state, assumed the Speakership.

Gingrich went on to become speaker after the Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 midterm elections. But ethics charges would tarnish the end of his tenure in Congress, as they had Wright’s, and he resigned in 1999. When Gingrich, as speaker, faced criticism from the ethics committee over a $4.5 million book advance, Wright tweaked his former antagonist. By comparison, Wright said, his own book royalties were “small potatoes.”

During World War II, Wright was a B-24 bombardier and flew 30 bombing missions over Japan. After returning from combat service, Wright won election to the Texas state legislature. He supported an anti-lynching bill, abolition of the poll tax and the admission of black students to the University of Texas law school.

His progressive views, far to the left of his constituents, cost him reelection, but he won two terms as mayor of Weatherford before winning a House seat in 1954. He was assigned to the Public Works Committee, where he wielded influence over interstate highway construction just as the program was commencing.

Over the years, he fought for a variety of development programs that benefited his state and became a reliable supporter of the Texas oil and gas industry. He also supported U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, with political analysts noting that his district was a hub of defense contractors.

On civil rights, he amassed a complicated legacy. He voted against the hallmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, because he said a yes vote that year would have ended his political career. He apologized for the vote many years later and voted for key civil rights legislation in 1965 and 1966.

Wright twice ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in the 1960s – including a bid for Lyndon B. Johnson’s vacated seat after Johnson became vice president – and instead advanced to the House leadership.

When O’Neill became speaker in 1976, vacating the majority leader’s office, Wright put his hat in the ring, along with three other contenders.

Two liberal democrats were vying to succeed O’Neill. Wright said he saw an opening as a respected moderate whose state had one of the largest Democratic delegations. Wright positioned himself as everybody’s second choice and won by a single vote on the final round.

After leaving Congress, Wright took to the speaking circuit. He wrote a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and taught government at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. In the late 1990s, he became ill with tongue cancer, which slurred the old orator’s speech. He had to relearn diction.

His first marriage, to Mary Ethelyn Lemons, ended in divorce. Their son, Parker Stephen Wright, who had Down syndrome, died in 1958.

In 1972, Wright married Betty Hay, a former staff member for the House Public Works Committee. Besides his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage.

Reflecting on his political career soon after his resignation from the speaker’s post, Wright told The Washington Post: “I think I was probably obsessed with the notion that I have a limited period of time in which to make my mark upon the future, make my contribution, whatever it may be, and, therefore, I must hurry.

“Maybe I was too insistent, too competitive, too ambitious to achieve too much in too short a period of time, and anyway I couldn’t have changed.”

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