Jim Wright early casualty of rising US House partisanship

DALLAS (AP) — As a member of what he called “the people’s house” for more than a generation, Texas Democrat Jim Wright was known for his rich oratorical skills in the U.S. House. He never relied on them more than the day in 1989, when he told those who had elected him speaker about two years earlier that he was prepared to resign after being accused of violating ethics rules dozens of times.

The congressman had been fighting such allegations for months, the controversy beginning in his second year as speaker and stretching into his third with no end in sight. At stake was the ignominy of becoming the first speaker in history to be driven out of office in midterm.

At first Wright cited the support he enjoyed in his Fort Worth-area district and his love for the institution in which he had served for 34 years. He offered only a meager defense of his actions, quickly turning to questioning his accusers’ motives and decrying what he called “this manic idea of a frenzy of feeding on other people’s reputation.”

His voice broke at times and tears appeared during his speech.

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“It is grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate, when negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation, when members of each party become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party,” Wright lamented. “In God’s name, that’s not what this institution is supposed to be about.”

In the end, Wright offered to resign to spare the House what he called “distractions” and asked that both sides resolve to “bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end.”

He was out of office in a week, an early casualty of the rising partisanship within the House and the personal attacks between House members that would mark the chamber for the last quarter-century. Critics would say Wright himself had helped fuel the ill will between the parties by generally ignoring Republicans as he and other Democrats tended to House business.

Wright — who died early Wednesday in Fort Worth at age 92 — was first elected to the House in 1954. He was the Democratic majority leader for a decade, rising to the speakership in January 1987, to replace Tip O’Neill.

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Three House speakers had resigned in the nation’s history before Wright stepped down. But they served during the 19th century, and none before Wright had been under fire and facing judgment in the House for breaking its ethics rules.

The House Ethics Committee investigated Wright’s financial affairs at the prodding of a little-known Georgia congressman, Republican Newt Gingrich, who publicly branded Wright a “crook.” The bipartisan committee charged Wright with 69 violations of House rules on reporting of gifts, accepting gifts from people with an interest in legislation, and limits on outside income.

The committee accused Wright of scheming to evade limits on outside earnings by self-publishing a book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” he then sold in bulk. He was also accused of improperly accepting $145,000 in gifts over 10 years from a Fort Worth developer. In response, Wright said he had not violated any House rules and vowed to fight the charges. But his support among fellow Democrats quickly eroded.

House Republicans chose Gingrich as their whip just months before Wright’s resignation, and the Georgia congressman later became speaker for four years, beginning in 1995, until his own ethical lapses led to his departure.

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Wright, born James Claude Wright Jr. in Fort Worth on Dec. 22, 1922, was the son of a professional boxer turned tailor. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Wright left college to enlist in the U.S. Army and flew combat missions in the South Pacific, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.

He served in the Texas House for one term, and at age 26 was mayor of Weatherford, his boyhood hometown, from 1950 to 1954, before his first congressional victory.

Often praised for his eloquence, Wright was a disciple of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a fellow Texan. He also was a confidant of another Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, who served in the Senate during Wright’s initial years in Congress before becoming vice president in 1961. Wright lost a special election to fill Johnson’s Senate seat that year.

Wright was in the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. “To describe the depth of sadness that engulfed us that day defies vocabulary,” he once said, recalling how the friendly mood of the Dallas crowds turned to “sheer terror and horror.” His friend Johnson became president that day.

In his long House career, Wright authored major legislation in several fields, but he was most proud of his efforts on behalf of a “pay-as-we-go” interstate highway system and water conservation.

He helped President Jimmy Carter fashion the 1978 Camp David agreement that led to peace between Israel and Egypt, and he played a pivotal role in bringing about a negotiated settlement in Central America that later led to the 1990 elections in Nicaragua in which the leftist Sandinista government lost. Like many Democrats, he opposed the Reagan administration’s emphasis on military pressure to fight Marxism there.

In Texas, Wright’s influence was felt long after he left office because of the Wright Amendment, which restricted direct commercial air travel from Love Field, near downtown Dallas, to nearby states. The amendment, passed in 1979, was designed to foster growth at the new Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed legislation to repeal the amendment and loosen some flight restrictions.

After leaving Congress, Wright gave speeches around the country, particularly at universities, and was a consultant for a petroleum company. For nearly 20 years he taught a popular political science course at Texas Christian University.

In addition to writing a weekly column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for more than 10 years, he wrote several books. “Worth It All: My War for Peace” (1993) looked at the U.S.-Nicaraguan/Central America peace effort. In 1996 he wrote “Balance of Power: Presidents and Congress from the Era of McCarthy to the Age of Gingrich,” and in 2005 he revisited the war years in “The Flying Circus: Pacific War — 1943 — as Seen Through a Bombsight.”

In 1991, Wright lost part of his tongue to cancer. He had more surgery in 1999 to remove and reconstruct parts of his jawbone and tongue when the cancer returned.

Associated Press writer Douglass K. Daniel contributed to this report from Washington.