Kennedy key to Wright’s long career

Dave Montgomery

Business Press Austin Correspondent



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Of the countless photographs from Nov. 22, 1963, one shows President John F. Kennedy emerging from the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth to greet thousands of admirers massed on a parking lot across the street. At his side: Fort Worth Congressman Jim Wright. A half-century after the Kennedy assassination – and nearly a quarter-century after leaving Congress – Wright, now 90, looks back on that day as one that started with soaring hopes and ended in grief that left him virtually paralyzed. “I believe that was the happiest and saddest day of my legislative career,” he said in an interview in his office at Texas Christian University. Before the epic tragedy, autumn of 1963 was a promising time for Wright. He was 40, an ascending five-term Democratic congressman who one day would be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and third in line of succession to the presidency.

He had already forged a respectful personal rapport with the 35th president, perhaps in part because of their common bond as World War II veterans and representatives of an emerging generation of young post-war political leaders. Wright had actively supported many of the president’s initiatives in Congress. Kennedy had interceded in Wright’s behalf to assure that the 12th Congressional District he represented received a vitally needed defense contract. By all accounts, they genuinely liked each other. At the request of Vice President Lyndon Johnson of Texas, one of his political mentors, Wright helped organize the president’s five-city Texas trip and insisted that Kennedy’s schedule be amended to include the appearance before more than 5,000 of Wright’s constituents across from the Hotel Texas. Wright accompanied the president throughout the trip. After the party arrived in Fort Worth late Nov. 21 following appearances in San Antonio and Houston, Wright endured a sleepless night worrying whether the rain falling outside his window in the Hotel Texas would spoil the president’s outdoor appearance that he had fought so hard to include. At 6:40 a.m., the rain stopped and the skies began clearing. “The luck of the Irish,” Wright mused before riding the elevator five floors and helping escort Kennedy outside to meet his Texas admirers. Back inside later to address more than 2,000 business and civic leaders at breakfast in the hotel ballroom, Kennedy said he was glad to be in “Jim Wright’s city” and saluted Fort Worth and its defense industry for their contributions to national defense. He also paid tribute to his congressman-host, saying, “I don’t know any city that is better represented in the Congress of the United States than Fort Worth.”

••• As he revisits the events of Nov. 22, 1963, Wright remembers that sunlit morning in Fort Worth as a “joyous occasion,’’ in contrast to the ”stark trauma” he would later witness in Dallas as a participant in the presidential motorcade and as an observer at Parkland Hospital, where the 46-year-old president was declared dead at 1 p.m. Wright would later learn from a staff member that the mother of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, as one of Wright’s constituents, had written his district congressional office about a year and half before the assassination expressing concern that her son was in the Soviet Union and that she was unable to contact him. “She couldn’t get him to write her and she was worried for his safety,” Wright told the Fort Worth Business Press. The letter was referred to the State Department, Wright said. Wright tells of his association with JFK, the events before and after the assassination, and details from his 34-year congressional career with vivid clarity, displaying a vibrant memory that has withstood the ravages of age. But his physical condition, he says, is another story. “I’m a wreck,” Wright said with a burst of laughter, paraphrasing a famous Bette Davis line. “Old age is not for sissies,” he asserts. For years, Wright has spoken with slurred speech as a result of two mouth cancer operations eight years apart, the latest 15 years ago. More recently, his eyesight has begun to fade because of macular degeneration, leaving him unable to drive and forced to read documents that his administrative assistant, Norma Ritchson, prints out in large type. He can no longer read a newspaper. He also suffers from bouts of sciatica, a painful inflammation of nerves stretching from the pelvis region to the back of the legs, and has difficulty walking. He said he was “hobbling and stumbling” so badly during a visit to the barber one time that he believed a nearby policeman eyeing him suspiciously suspected him of being drunk. Nor can Wright readily engage in the simple pleasures of a lunchtime trip to a favorite restaurant. He is forced to take liquid meals through a tube in his abdomen, a regimen that he repeats three times daily though he sometimes skips lunch “because it isn’t convenient.”

Wright had another scare recently when he discovered a lump at the back of his tongue, raising fears of another potential bout with mouth cancer. To his relief, a biopsy showed it to be benign. “I can’t see, can’t read a paper, can’t drive a car, can’t hear very well,” he said. Then, flashing his trademark sense of humor, Wright added: “Aside from that, I’m on top shelf.” Wright is seated in his office in TCU’s Mary Couts Burnett Library, which houses the thousands of papers, photographs and other documents that he assembled during his more than three decades of public service and donated to TCU as he was leaving Congress in 1989. The massive collection fills nearly all of a sub-basement in the library. “I’m a lucky man,” he told the Business Press. “I‘ve gotten to do in life what I’ve wanted to do.” His office has been furnished to duplicate the speaker’s office that he occupied from 1987 to 1989. An exhibit lining the walls outside the office includes clippings and other memorabilia from his congressional career, including the iconic photograph showing Wright beside JFK in 1963.

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TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini Jr. said Wright’s “Congress and the Presidents” course, which he taught from 1991 to 2010, was immensely popular and was typically filled within minutes during registration. Even though he no longer teaches, Boschini said, the former speaker is “very visible” and often “holds court” in his office, talking to clusters of students or other visitors. “He is definitely an elder statesman on campus,’” said Boschini. “He’s extremely approachable for the students and they love that.” Though slowed by health problems and advancing age, Wright still maintains a relatively vigorous schedule in the office and with occasional speaking appearances. He and his wife, Betty, live about a mile from campus in the Overton Woods neighborhood and Wright typically rides to work with Ritchson, who has been his administrative assistant since 1980. “He’s a hard worker. He makes his telephone calls, he makes a few speeches, and does interviews, and talks to young people who are doing research and all those sorts of things,” said Ritchson. “He’s not happy if he doesn’t have a plan for the day. He makes his list and has an agenda for every day, things we are going to accomplish.” Wright was elected to Congress in 1954, upending an established Democratic incumbent by winning 60 percent of the primary vote to represent the 12th Congressional District. At that time, the district encompassed five counties but 75 percent of the population was in Fort Worth. Throughout his more than three decades in Congress, Wright became a tireless steward for his district, showering his defense-based community with lucrative government contracts, while rising through the ranks to become House majority leader for 10 years before ascending to speaker in 1987. His 12th District constituents re-elected him 17 times. Wright was regarded as one of the most skillful orators in the House, an adept legislative negotiator and an expert on foreign policy. One of the proudest moments of his career, he says, was when he had the opportunity to deliver a television address to the Russian people while leading a congressional delegation to the Soviet Union. Wright resigned during his second term as speaker in 1989 after an ethics inquiry that roiled the House with fierce partisan infighting. He steadfastly denied wrongdoing but said that political bitterness had created an atmosphere of “mindless cannibalism” that made it impossible for him to lead effectively.

••• Of the eight presidents with whom Wright served, he regards Kennedy as “the most inspiring.” Their first encounter came during Wright’s first term in Congress when Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, was getting broadening national exposure from the publication of his book, Profiles in Courage. In his 1996 autobiography, Balance of Power, Wright recalled inviting Kennedy to be his guest on a weekly interview show that Wright hosted for two Fort Worth television stations. “Readily assenting to my invitation,” Wright recalled, Kennedy “enriched the 15-minute program with sparkling good humor.” As part of the program, Wright offered copies of Kennedy’s book, autographed by the author, to students who would send in a 500-word essay on their favorite character in history. More than 100 young people responded, getting books that three decades later were appraised at $500 apiece. It was during the 1960 presidential race that Wright was fully exposed to what he would call “the Kennedy magic.” Like other Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation, he ardently supported then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But after Kennedy secured the nomination and named Johnson as his running mate, Wright became an energized Kennedy supporter and worked to support most – though not all – of Kennedy’s congressional agenda after he became president. “The spirit of the New Frontier was contagious,” Wright said in his autobiography. “On those rare occasions when I disagreed with President Kennedy, I still admired him. Politics was fun, exciting things were happening.” TCU political science professor Jim Riddlesperger, who is co-authoring a book on Wright’s congressional career and leadership, said the two young politicians made a good fit. In November of 1963, Wright and Kennedy were both in their 40s. Both were veterans of the Pacific Theater in World War II – Wright as a B-24 bombardier, Kennedy as the hero commander of PT-109. And they both embodied the “new generation of Americans” that Kennedy described in his inaugural address of 1961. “Wright became very much in the group of young members of Congress that were in the Kennedy orbit,” said Riddlesperger. “He had really come to like the Kennedy presidency and had begun to think very highly of President Kennedy. They had a mutual respect and they very much had shared experiences.” One critical milestone in Wright’s relationship with Kennedy came when the Fort Worth congressman was desperately trying to secure a new defense contract for the city’s aircraft plant, which was then run by General Dynamics before later being acquired by Lockheed Martin.

The mile-long plant faced the loss of thousands of jobs after the cancellation of the delta-winged B-58 Hustler, and Wright hoped to offset the potential blow to the local economy by landing a new aircraft contract called the TFX – tactical fighter experimental – which would ultimately become the F-111 fighter-bomber. The competition ultimately came down to two principal rivals – General Dynamics and Boeing in Seattle – and the Pentagon appeared to be leaning toward Boeing. Wright sought help from his fellow Texan, Vice President Johnson, who arranged an Oval Office meeting on a snowy January day to allow Wright to make his case to the president. In advance of the meeting, Wright recalled, Johnson told him that “the president liked me” and appreciated his active support for Kennedy initiatives such the Peace Corps and the space program. With the Johnson in attendance, Wright made an eight-minute presentation portraying the Fort Worth aircraft plant as a “national asset” that needed the TFX contract to survive. “‘Thank you, Jim. You’ve made a good case,’ the president said,” according to Wright’s autobiography. “‘I would imagine, if the price is in the ballpark, that the Fort Worth plant would get the job. ‘” Wright was later forced to put out another fire when he heard, despite the president’s initial assurance, that the Pentagon had sent a recommendation to the White House suggesting Boeing for the contract. He hurriedly went to see Kennedy’s right-hand man, Kenny O’Donnell. “What are you worrying about, Jim?” Wright quoted O’Donnell as saying. “You heard what the man said last January. The plane will be built in Fort Worth.” O’Donnell then called Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to discuss the TFX contract, Wright said. A few weeks later, shortly after the 1962 mid-term elections, Wright got a call from the White House telling him that GD had won the contract. The following year, Kennedy described the importance of the TFX contract when he became the first president to visit Fort Worth since 1936. With Wright seated nearby at the head table at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Nov. 22, Kennedy said the TFX would be a “new Fort Worth product” and “the number one airplane in the world today.” A total of 562 models of the F-111 rolled off the GD line by the time production finished in the late 1970s.

••• Kennedy’s trip to Texas was designed to repair an internal rift between conservatives and liberals in the state Democratic Party, haul in more than $100,000 at an Austin fundraiser and appeal for support in a must-win state. With Johnson on the ticket, Kennedy had carried Texas in 1960 but there were signs of slipping support with the approach of the 1964 election. One of Wright’s challenges as an organizer of the trip was persuading legendary Fort Worth oilman William A. (Monty) Moncrief to make available the parking lot that he owned across the street from the Hotel Texas for the early morning outdoor gathering. Moncrief was “hardly a Kennedy supporter,” Wright said in his autobiography, and “his first reaction was to decline the request.” But Wright and Texas Gov. John Connally appealed to Moncrief’s “sense of civic duty” and the oilman relented. After Kennedy delivered the last speech of his life in Fort Worth, the presidential entourage flew from Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas’ Love Field aboard Air Force One. Chatting with Wright and Connally enroute to Love Field, the president “was asking about the history of Fort Worth and Dallas,” seeking to understand how “these two towns, growing up side by side, had turned out somewhat differently,” Wright told the Business Press. After landing, Kennedy turned to Connally and Wright and said, “We have to continue this conversation on our flight to Austin.” Wright was about a half-dozen vehicles behind the presidential limousine in the Kennedy motorcade, sharing a car with fellow Texas Rep. Jack Brooks. As they approached the Texas School Book Depository, Wright said, “I heard the first shot … and I didn’t know what it was. I thought it might be a backfire.” When he heard the second shot, Wright said, he realized it was rifle fire but initially thought someone might be trying to fire a 21-gun salute. With the off-cadence third shot, Wright realized something was terribly wrong. “We saw the front cars had stopped,” Wright said in the interview. “Kennedy’s car and Johnson’s car had both stopped. And then a Secret Service man ran up to the side of Kennedy’s car and jumped into the car from the side and pushed the president down. And then it shot forward. I saw Mrs. Kennedy kneeling on her knees leaning over the back seat.” Wright saw the pandemonium spreading across the grassy knoll near the book depository as his car passed stunned spectators. “I could tell they had just witnessed some horrible scene,” Wright said. “I felt that someone had been shooting at the president.” The car with Wright and Brooks rushed to follow the lead cars, arriving at Parkland Hospital as the president was being carried inside. Two men were also helping Connally, who had been critically wounded by the assassin’s gunfire. The backseat of the presidential limousine was stained with “great quantities of fresh blood.” Wright said he “feared the worst.”

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“They came out – I don’t know how many minutes it was – and announced that the president had died. And that was a blow. That was a disastrous feeling. It really shook me up terribly. I couldn’t recover. I had to accept it. I knew it was true.” Wright said a newsman with a microphone asked him for a comment but he was too stunned to respond. Instead, Wright recalled, “I said a prayer. I couldn’t bring myself to articulate anything other than that … I was absolutely paralyzed … from any activity.” In his autobiography, Wright recalled how he and others who had shared moments with the fallen president “moved about in a cloud” over the next several days as the nation paid its last respects and struggled to deal with “a depth of sadness” that “defies the vocabulary.” Wright wrote his book 17 years ago. But at least one timeless passage could easily describe how Americans feel today as they approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination. “Now we look back after all these years and seek meaning. How unreal it seems. How beyond our capacity to fathom. How incongruous and paradoxical that, in the cosmic fitness of things, so premature an end to so fine a life would come at such a time and in such a seemingly senseless way.”