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The Wright Stuff

The curious history of the next speaker of the House.

It was big news this summer when Majority Leader Jim Wright threatened to punch a Republican right-winger during a squabble on the House floor over a procedural vote. But the incident was right in character for the hot-tempered Texan. Over the years he's made similar threats with some regularity. In fact, Wright's political career didn't really start rolling until he'd proved his manhood by decking a drunk who called him a "Commie sonofabitch" at the local American Legion hall in 1946.

As that career has taken him from small-time west Texas pol to national leader, he's altered his political stance, his career goals, his personal life—even his looks. He's made money and gained political power. But at heart Wright remains a deal-making, big-spending Texas pol—hair trigger and all, as the incident on the House floor shows. Not a few of his colleagues wonder whether the last of the old-time Democrats is the right future leader for the House and for the Democratic Party. For the next speaker is likely to be the preeminent spokesman for the party at least until 1988 and perhaps far beyond.

Wright, who is now neither as liberal as his Fort Worth constituents perceive him nor as conservative as much of Washington thinks, began political life as a certified lefty. As a member of the Texas Legislature in the late 1940s, he was part of a small band of Democrats whose liberal leanings won them the derisive label "the Russian Embassy." Wright's main contribution was a quixotic attempt to tax the state's biggest oil, gas, and sulphur producers; the proceeds were to go for teacher pay, farm roads, and aid to the poor, elderly, and blind.

When his job was on the line, however, Wright retreated. Three weeks before election day in 1948, one of his opponents was shot by unknown assailants. The dying man fingered "communists" and, by implication, Wright (the murder remains unsolved, and authorities never found credible evidence to connect Wright or his supporters to the crime). Facing defeat, Wright made a desperate election-eve appeal. "I believe in the soundness of States' Rights," he wrote in the local paper. "I believe in the Southern tradition of Segregation and have strongly resisted any and all efforts to destroy it." He lost anyway.

After that, Wright became almost obsessively cautious. "He's not one for tilting at windmills," remarked former Texas congressman Frank Ikard, who has known Wright for 30 years. "I cannot recall him ever being out alone or way out front on anything."

To restore his reputation, Wright put in two terms as mayor of tiny Weatherford, Texas (population 8,000). A longtime associate, Craig Raupe, recalls Wright's anguish over racial questions in his new job. During a prolonged drought in 1953, Wright watched uneasily as black children peered enviously through the fence of the municipal pool while their white friends swam. Segregation was still the law in Texas, but Raupe, who ran the pool, told the mayor that if any black kids wanted in, he'd let them. "O.K., I'll back you," Wright replied. "But let's hope they don't ask." Raupe says, "We were both yellow. We both knew what was right, but it was political suicide."

Two years later Wright arrived in Congress as something of a hero. He had removed a burr under Speaker Sam Rayburn's saddle by defeating a reactionary Democratic incumbent, a prefigurative Boll Weevil. Eager to please his elders in the Texas delegation, Wright took a seat on the Public Works Committee, and spent the next 22 years there. Had he not been chosen majority leader of the House in 1977, he would have become committee chairman that year.

As a product of the fast-disappearing one-party South, Wright had no party organization to rely on. Political survival meant creating his own machine. Like LBJ and others before him, he chose a traditional route: the pork barrel. Applying himself to the task with single-minded zeal, he became a legend for funneling federal dollars to his hometown. A 1979 study found that his district got the highest "return" per tax dollar of any in the country.

Then, as now, Wright was a classic national Democrat from Texas: liberal on economics with a deep neo-populist streak (cheap money) and conservative on social and foreign policy issues. But on the two critical issues of his time, civil rights and Vietnam, he lagged behind others in his party and his home state. Though he wasn't a demagogue on race, when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act reached the House floor, Wright voted no. It wasn't until the 1970s, when he became majority leader, that he emerged as a steady adherent of civil rights initiatives.

A war supporter virtually until the end, Wright sponsored a controversial White House-approved resolution in 1969 endorsing Richard Nixon's Vietnam policy. As late as 1973, when a majority in Congress voted to end the bombing in Indochina, Wright sided with those who would let it continue. Throughout, he took a traditional line: that Congress had a bipartisan duty to support administration foreign policy. It was also in Wright's political interest. His district is full of big defense contractors that supplied fighter bombers and helicopters to the war effort.

For most of his House career, Wright was best known as a tireless advocate of federal water projects. His meatiest pork chop was the Trinity River canal, a mammoth $860 million plan to bring barge traffic from the Gulf of Mexico to landlocked Fort Worth. In 1965 Wright single-handedly convinced Congress to authorize the project, despite the opposition of home-state president Lyndon Johnson. It was the kind of prodigious feat that won Wright the lasting admiration and financial backing of the local business community. Area voters were less enamored of the canal idea; their refusal to assume local costs led Congress to defer funding, apparently forever.

One of Wright's treasured possessions is an original copy of My First Days in the White House, Huey Long's 1935 manifesto for the populist revolution he didn't live to lead. Asked in an interview to explain his view of government's proper role, Wright pulled out the well-marked volume. He read aloud, at length. Long's Depression-era dream of a Western water project costing ten billion dollars. "That's more like $100 billion today. Or more. More!" Wright marveled. Clearly the Kingfish understood Big Government's potential for greatness. "I believe we make a bigger mistake," Wright concluded, "when we think too small than when we think too big."

Wright too dreamed big. He'd had his sights on the White House since childhood. Hoping to work his way up the ladder, he unsuccessfully sought LBJ's Senate seat in 1961 and later was refused appointment by Johnson to a Cabinet job or ambassadorship. Depressed, Wright turned inward. He seriously considered retiring from politics. He divorced his wife of 30 years and married a staff aide. Abandoning his presidential ambitions, he channeled his energy into internal House battles. In 1976, shrewdly glimpsing daylight in the three-way race among Representatives Richard Boiling, Phil Burton, and John McFall for majority leader, he entered late and was elected by a single vote. Subsequent analysis revealed he had won because he was a friendly guy, a Southerner (the other candidates weren't), and had courted his colleagues over the years by helping with their pet projects on Public Works.

As a rural congressman who didn't finish college (World War II intervened), Wright has never been the darling of Washington sophisticates. Yet he is the proud possessor of one of the most sensitive political antennae in town. Since becoming majority leader, Wright has broadened his outlook and retooled his image. He's done a good job of reflecting his national constituency in the House, carefully shifting ground on key issues such as federally funded abortion, the MX missile, and aid to the Nicaraguan contras to stay close to the liberal Democratic majority. He's adjusted to the demands of television, too, trading his dark-rimmed specs for aviator glasses and his plaid suits for designer ultrasuede. He stopped dyeing his thinning hair an orange color and let it go gray. Even his trademark eyebrows don't bush so defiantly anymore. Wright credits his wife, Betty, as being "the architect" of his changed appearance.

Yet it seems safe to say that he will never be taken for an Atari Democrat. As majority leader, he may have lifted his sights beyond the pork barrel, but he hasn't lost his affection for big spending programs. Without him, the ill-fated synthetic fuels program might never have been born. Even in the straitened Age of Reagan, he's found something new to admire. At a White House meeting earlier this year, Wright startled the president and leaders of both parties with an impromptu plug for Star Wars. Other more obscure, but similarly visionary, projects he has championed in recent years include the solar power satellite, a now-dormant plan to beam solar energy to earth via orbiting structures as big as Manhattan Island. Estimated cost: $500 billion to one trillion dollars.

Since his rise to national prominence, Wright's personal finances have changed as well. For his first 25 years in Congress, he had little to show. Almost broke in 1976, he used $98,501 in campaign contributions to pay off "personal and political debts," which, he said, had become "inseparably entwined." After neglecting his bankbook for years, Wright says he grew concerned during the 1970s about leaving an estate to his heirs.

About that time he met legendary Fort Worth oilman Monty Moncrief—a man who once casually dealt his golfing pals Bob Hope and Bing Crosby into some oil wells that brought them five million bucks each. Early in 1979 the oilman needed Wright's political pull. One of his companies had helped drill Israel's first commercial oil well, a gusher in occupied Egyptian waters off the Sinai coast. Then peace had broken out. At Camp David, Israel agreed to return the oil field, and Egypt laid plans to evict Moncrief's company—before it could recoup its $100 million investment. Moncrief wanted the United States to pressure Egypt into granting relief. But for years the State Department had sided with Egypt and condemned Israel's drilling as illegal.

Though Wright and Moncrief were barely acquainted (Monty had never even voted for Wright, much less contributed to his campaigns), Wright wasn't one to spurn a constituent in need. Using his access as a House leader, he personally took up Moncrief's case with Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and a raft of top Egyptian officials. No dice. Finally, amid the euphoria surrounding the signing of the 1979 peace treaty, he importuned Anwar Sadat, pressing a letter into his hands pleading Moncrief's side. What Wright didn't tell Sadat—or anyone else, for that matter—was that several weeks earlier Monty Moncrief had cut him into a private gas well deal in east Texas.

Gas exploration is notoriously risky, especially for someone with little money, but the deal had the appearance of a no-lose proposition. The first well, which began to run dry, was followed by an offer from Moncrief to invest in another. Wright paid about $50,000 in all, much of it borrowed from a Fort Worth bank. Through 1984, the wells were still producing, and had earned Wright between $70,500 and $222,500, according to public records. Though he hasn't invested with Moncrief again, Wright has prospered ever since. By the end of 1984, his personal holdings had grown to between $600,000 and $1.2 million, including oil and gas wells worth as much as $300,000.

When the Moncrief deal came to light in 1980, Wright denied any impropriety, and defended his efforts on the oilman's behalf as no different from those he routinely provides his constituents. (His lobbying got Moncrief nowhere; but the oilman wound up making a profit anyway, thanks to fast-rising world oil prices.) At the time, Wright was facing the toughest reelection fight of his career. But his Republican opponent, backed by oil interests, was reluctant to raise the issue, and Wright won handily. He probably won't be challenged seriously again. Even local Republicans are savoring the lucrative prospect of a hometown boy as House speaker.

Free to concentrate on the race for speaker, Wright has waited uneasily as O'Neill hangs onto the job. Though the 62-year-old Texan has been anointed by O'Neill as his successor, and will in all likelihood step forward as speaker after O'Neill retires next year, the delay has cost him. In the new climate of generational change in the House, Wright's ascension would stand out as the final gasp of the old go-along-to-get-along crowd.

As speaker, Wright could prove to be an unusually tough and effective boss. The pugnacious former Golden Gloves fighter says he'd like to be a "forceful speaker." He has the potential for leading through intimidation. And though his temperament can get in the way, those who have felt the sting of his rage find him quick to forgive, if not to forget. "Jim is a brooder," said playwright Larry L. King, a former aide. "If things go wrong, if people are feeling badly about him, if he's been unjustly accused, he doesn't just go over to sleep. He broods and frets about it." On a personal level, his colleagues' major complaint is that Wright isn't a hail-fellow-well-met. He confides in no one and seems to have no close friends.

But the next speaker must do more than lead the House. He will inherit a high-profile "public speakership" begun under O'Neill. With Republicans in control of the White House and Senate, the speaker has become the leading voice of the Democratic opposition (making the outmoded O'Neill an ever-larger part of the Democrats' problem, in the view of some). The advent of a Jim Wright era in Congress gives heartburn to younger Democrats, who fear for their party's future and their own. In their view, having an old-line politician with more than a hint of the snake-oil salesman about him as your national spokesman is no way to win the hearts and minds of tomorrow's voters.

In that sense, Wright remains his own biggest enemy. He is renowned for his flowery orations. On the House floor, his grandiloquence plays well; on TV, it's a disaster. Here is a vintage example from a new collection of his speeches: "In finest theory, [a politician] gathers up gleams of enlightenment from a multitude of human sources, draws them all together through the prism of his own personality, and then transmits them, concentrated, in a broader, brighter beam of inspiration for the whole community." His rhetorical flourishes are an anachronism better suited to the days of the chautauqua circuit than the solid-circuit age. "It's like Broadway versus television. Jason Robards is bad on TV because he overacts. With Wright, it's the same thing. He does more, rather than less," said a Democratic aide. "It's a situation that has to be dealt with."

Wright is trying, but some Democrats see him as a risk they cannot afford. That feeling became clear last fall when Republican gains seemed to jeopardize future Democratic control of the House. In a series of secret meetings, junior Democrats mulled some sort of leadership coup. O'Neill and Wright handily co-opted the rebels, and the threat faded. But a weak Democratic showing in the 1986 congressional elections could revive the smoldering revolt and shake Wright's claim to the speakership.

So for the next year he'll continue to press what amounts to the longest-running and most expensive campaign on the national political scene. Working his colleagues like a ward heeler, he has appeared in hundreds of districts since 1977 and raised millions for their campaigns, much of if from his special PAC fund. His labors have brought him more than 200 pledges of support from Democratic representatives, he says, far more than needed to win. Yet one Southern congressman whom Wright counts as pledged to him says scornfully, "Those pledges aren't worth the paper they're written on. It's an easy shot. You've got a secret-ballot election. A lot of these people aren't going to say no to him. But people are just going to swallow any commitment if they think Jim is not where the party ought to go."

If Wright is troubled about the party's future, he keeps it well hidden. He regards recent Republican gains as little more than the natural swing of the political cycle. When the economic balloon bursts, voters will return to the Democratic fold. "I think for the most part our party has been on the right track, but that doesn't mean that we should get in a rut," he says. "I think that's leadership. That's what we're trying to do, moving with events, staying ahead of events, not just bogged down in the settled, hidebound, and self-satisfied position of the French behind the Maginot Line."

Nor does he worry much about his image. "Without substance, image is empty," he says. "I think reality is more important than perception, and without having a grip on reality, flighty perceptions can be dangerous to the nation. Therefore, I want to concentrate first on substance and reality. And I want to be able to express that substance and reality with sufficient fidelity that the image gained will be the true image, not the phony image." Indeed.

Paul West is national political correspondent of The Baltimore Sun.

This article originally ran in the October 14, 1985, issue of the magazine.