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Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright Dies

Jim Wright, a Fort Worth Democrat who spent 34 years in Congress and became the 48th speaker of the U.S. House, has died.

By David Montgomery, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
U.S. Speaker of the House, Jim Wright of Texas

In 1939, one of Jim Wright’s classmates penned an eerily accurate forecast in the high school yearbook, predicting that, in 1955, “Congressman Wright” would deliver “the most erudite speech heard in the Congressional Hall.”

Sixteen years later, in 1955, Jim Wright arrived in Washington as the newly elected U.S. representative from Fort Worth. It was the beginning of a 34-year congressional career that fulfilled a boyhood dream and vaulted Wright to the pinnacle of power as 48th speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Wright has died, Thompson’s, Harveson and Cole Funeral Home in Fort Worth confirmed Wednesday morning.

Even after his career collapsed in 1989, when an ethics scandal forced him to become the first speaker in history to resign, Wright insistently portrayed himself as a lucky man. “I got to do in life what I set out to do,” he said repeatedly.

During his more than three decades as representative from the 12th District in Texas, Wright became as much a Fort Worth institution as the Stockyards and the pink granite courthouse. At the height of power, he fortified his hometown with millions of dollars in government pork, from defense jobs to water projects. President John F. Kennedy once called Fort Worth “the best represented city” in America.

In many respects, Wright was one of the last practitioners of old-school Texas politics, a descendant of the same lineage that produced Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn and John Connally. He was a skilled backroom negotiator, a captivating storyteller and persuasive orator. His bushy eyebrows, broad grin and twangy Texas accent were enduring trademarks.

Wright became speaker in January 1987, displaying an activist brand of leadership that resulted in early successes. One of his biggest achievements was a bipartisan Central American peace plan that he forged with President George Bush, ending a decade of turbulence in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

But his effectiveness was eroded by a House ethics investigation into charges that Mr. Wright violated House rules through outside business dealings. While Wright steadfastly denied wrongdoing, the ethics furor virtually halted business in the House, becoming what the media characterized as the congressional equivalent of Watergate.

On May 31, 1989, after weeks of soul searching, Wright stood behind the House podium and tearfully relinquished the speakership, saying he could no longer lead effectively.

“Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown up among us,” Wright told colleagues, his voice choked with emotion. “I don’t want to be a party to tearing up this institution. I love it."

Wright and his wife, Betty, returned to Fort Worth, emotionally stung from the ordeal. He said they rebounded and eventually came to consider the forced move from stress-filled Washington as a blessing in disguise.

The former speaker settled into what he said was a satisfying routine that included lectures, book-writing and teaching a government course at Texas Christian University. Betty Wright, a former professional dancer, took up tap dance lessons.

In 1991, Wright faced a life-threatening scare when he was diagnosed with mouth cancer. Doctors removed the tumor and later declared Wright fully recovered, although the operation left the former speaker with a slight slur in his speech. Wright sometimes joked that he sounded like a man who “had a drink or two.”

Wright appeared genuinely happy to be out of the Washington goldfish bowl, but he never completely severed his ties to the nation’s capital. In 1993, he returned to Washington to promote his book Worth It All, an autobiographical account detailing his peacemaking activities in Central America.

In his book, Wright charged that hard-line conservatives orchestrated his political downfall in retaliation for his activism in the Central American peace process.

“As for me, except for some errors in judgment that are clearer now in hindsight, I think I’d do it all again,” Wright reflected in the book. “I look in the mirror every morning and I smile.”

James Claude Wright Jr. was born Dec. 22, 1922, the first of three children born to a self-made promoter and a woman with roots in England’s upper crust. Growing up, Wright attended public schools in nine towns in Texas and Oklahoma as his father moved from job to job before starting a lucrative nationwide business that staged sales promotions for small-town businesses.

Both parents had a strong influence in his life. His father, James Claude Wright Sr., was a former middleweight boxer and self-made businessman who descended from hard-scrabble families from western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. His mother, Marie Lyster Wright, was the daughter of an English aristocrat.

Proud, handsome and energetic, the older Wright instilled in his son and two daughters a sense of fair play and self-achievement and a love for books, poetry, art and music. Evenings in the Wright household were drawn from a Victorian parlor setting, with sing-alongs and poetry reading around the piano.

His father gave him a punching bag and taught Wright how to box. From the time he was 13 until he was a young adult Jim Wright Jr. won dozens of Golden Gloves matches — far more than he lost — and was a district champ in Oklahoma. Years later, as a representative in his early 40s, he trained for an exhibition fight against heavyweight champ Joe Frazier before Speaker John McCormack scrapped the match as “undignified.” A punching bag hung in his garage years after Wright left Congress.

Throughout the Depression, the Wrights alternately endured near poverty and basked in wealth. But the parents never gave a hint of their financial status to the children. Wright’s father drank heavily, but that side of his personality stayed in the shadows.

James C. Wright Jr., or “Bubba” as he was known to his sisters, displayed his ambitious tendencies at Adamson High School in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, where he became a leader in athletics, academics and school politics. At 14, influenced by his success as a student debater, he abandoned his goal of becoming a football coach and set his sights on becoming a member of Congress.

After graduating from high school, he attended Weatherford Junior College, where he met his first wife, Mary Ethelyn “Mab” Lemons. They were married for 30 years until their divorce in 1972.

He left Weatherford to attend the University of Texas but the outbreak of World War II permanently disrupted Wright’s college education. Three weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the service and later served in the Pacific Theater as a B-24 bombardier.

After Wright shipped out overseas, his wife returned to Weatherford to stay with his family and await his homecoming from combat in March 1944. He remained in the service until the war ended, then took a Greyhound back to Texas, more intent than ever to begin his career in politics.

He landed a well-paying job as Fort Worth representative for the National Federation of Small Business, and began to draw attention on the Rotary Club circuit with speeches protesting the firing of University of Texas President Homer Rainey.

Wright’s springboard into politics was the Young Democrats, which he helped organize to advocate a minimum wage, a world police force, medical care for the elderly and other controversial issues.

With “Red Scare” fears on the rise in postwar Texas, many staunch conservatives viewed the organization as a hotbed for radical thought. In a confrontation at a VFW Hall, a drunk called Wright a “commie sonofabitch” and Wright, the former Golden Glover, decked his antagonist with seven quick punches.

In 1946, Wright won election to the Texas House of Representatives from Parker County and quickly established himself as a liberal Don Quixote with ill-starred efforts to finance new social services by taxing big oil, gas and sulfur producers.

But his budding political career seemed in danger of collapsing barely after it began. On July 7, 1948, Wright was taking an evening off from campaigning for a second term when a friend burst into his home with news that one of Wright’s two opponents had been shot.

Eugene Miller, a former state senator and zealous anti-communist advocate lay dying at a Weatherford hospital after he was shot twice outside his farmhouse. By his account, a man had called Miller into his front yard, shot him at close range in the leg and chest, then sped away with two companions in a late-model Chevrolet.

Apparently believing he would recover, Miller said the shooting was the work of communist “henchmen,” leading deathbed witnesses to conclude that Miller was trying to implicate Wright. Texas Ranger George Roach said months of investigation found no evidence linking Wright to the killing and indicated that the shadowy lobbyist may have been killed over gambling debts. The case was never solved.

Nevertheless, Miller’s slaying ignited countywide rumors that Wright was a murderer and suddenly transformed the front-runner into an underdog against the other opponent, Floyd Bradshaw. Wright desperately tried to regain momentum with an election-eve ad deploring communism and proclaiming support for the “Southern tradition of segregation.” But he lost by 38 votes.

The defeat left an indelible scar on Wright’s psyche and contributed to a tendency to be overcautious in future political races. But he quickly rebounded by winning election as the “boy mayor” of Weatherford at the age of 27.

After two terms as mayor, Wright was reaching a crossroads. He spent Sundays preaching at a small Presbyterian church in Granbury and seriously considered an offer to take one of the denomination’s top administrative posts in Texas.

But his political ambitions prevailed. In 1954, he entered the Democratic primary against Rep. Wingate Lucas in the five-county congressional district that included Fort Worth and Weatherford. Wright regarded the contest as a test of his Presbyterian fatalism; if he won, he told himself, it was his destiny to be a member of Congress.

The race was more than man against man. Lucas was an eight-year incumbent who carried the blessings and financial support of Amon Carter, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegramˆ and patriarch of Fort Worth. Carter had snubbed Wright several years earlier at a political function and was intent on derailing the political upstart from Weatherford.

Wright lost 20 pounds during the arduous, four-month campaign as he attacked Lucas as an ineffective potential “lifetime congressman.” Lucas countered that Wright was a tool of big labor because of his strong support of pro-labor issues.

Desperately searching for a big play, Wright wrote his “Open Letter to Mr. Amon G. Carter,” a $974.40 advertisement in the Star-Telegram. “You have at last met a man, Mr. Carter, who is not afraid of you,” Wright declared. “The people are tired of ‘One-man Rule.’ This is a New Day.”

The next day, right carried all five counties, driving Lucas from office with 59 percent of the vote. Amon Carter reacted to the victory by printing an open letter offering to bury the hatchet and beseeching the new representative to “hop at it in full force and good humor.”

Heeding Carter’s advice, Wright hopped to it with little wasted time. He traded in his 14-year-old Buick, packed his wife and children in a new Chrysler, and set out for a frenetic new life in Washington.

The new Texas freshman was aided by two powerful forces from his home state — House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Lyndon Johnson. Rayburn placed his young protege on the public works committee, the clearing house for congressional pork. And Wright sought Johnson’s help in passing his first bill, simplifying mailing procedures for church publications.

Eager to succeed, Wright began a grueling pace that would continue virtually uninterrupted throughout his congressional career. His maiden speech — on soil conservation — landed him on the cover of a trade publication. More substantial initiatives followed — a compromise highway proposal, legislation prohibiting “the spoils system” of postal hiring, an ethics code for public officials.

His pursuit of the job left little time for family. His children would later describe him as a caring father who helped with homework and listened to their problems whenever he was home. But often he was away, tending to legislative business.

Even in those early days, Wright left the distinct impression that he wanted to run for president. But he abandoned that goal in the 1970s, concluding that he didn’t have the temperament to be the nation’s chief executive.

Three days before Christmas in 1958, Mr. Wright suffered what he once described as the “hardest thing I ever had to endure” when an infant son, Parker Stephen, died after being diagnosed as having Down Syndrome, a congenital form of mental and physical retardation. Wright cried as he knelt down in a hospital parking lot to tell his other children of Stephen’s death.

Struggling to overcome the ordeal, Wright plunged deeper into his political career. When Lyndon Johnson left his Texas Senate seat to become vice president, Wright jumped into the race to succeed him, the first entry in a political field of 71.

He came in third, barely missing the runoff that Republican John Tower, a Wichita Falls college professor, went on to win.

Wright’s political misfortunes, financial problems, and the lingering emotional strain caused by his son’s death imposed an insurmountable burden on his marriage, resulting in a divorce in 1972.

The same year, he married congressional aide Betty Hay in what was heralded as one of Washington’s storybook romances. Washingtonian Magazine profiled them in 1984 as one of the city’s four happiest couples.

In down moments, Wright talked openly of quitting Congress to become a minister or teacher. But he persevered, rising in power as Texas gained clout in Washington during the Johnson presidency. In 1976, he ran for House majority leader and seized the post by a one-vote margin in balloting among his Democratic colleagues.

Wright basked in prestige and congratulations after his one-vote victory, but he also found himself in an unaccustomed goldfish bowl. His wife of four years resigned her $25,000-a-year job on the Public Works Committee after the press raised questions of possible nepotism.

His financial tangles also came under press scrutiny. Two months after his House election, he announced that he was voluntarily paying the Internal Revenue Service $49,250 because his personal and campaign debts, dating back 16 years, had become “inseparably entwined.” Federal law requires that income tax be paid on personal use of campaign money.

Wright faced the hardest re-election battle of his career in 1980, when Republicans sought to capitalize on the growing tide of conservatism to bring down the powerful Democrat. Compounding his problems were reports that he was invited into an oil well investment after using his influence to try to protect the Middle East holdings of an oil rich constituent, Forth Worth’s Moncrief family.

Nevertheless, Wright survived easily, winning re-election with 61 percent of the vote and insisting that there was nothing improper about the Moncrief investment. The controversial well, in fact, was the first step toward a financial upswing. Guided by longtime friends, including Fort Worth developer George Mallick, Wright went on to invest in 30 other oil wells, as well as real estate, cable television, nursing homes and stocks. By 1985, he would be worth more than a quarter-million dollars.

The 1980 conservative landslide that brought Ronald Reagan into the White House also ushered in a turbulent period for Wright. Conservative Democrats, including Texans, bucked their party to help pass Reagan’s economic programs, and the majority leader was powerless to stop them. Angry and embarrassed, he fleetingly considered quitting Congress.

“It’s no fun to lose,” he wrote in his diary. “It does no good for my reputation as majority leader.”

But the Democrats later expanded their majority with subsequent election victories, bolstering Wright’s political base for his bid to succeed Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts as speaker. As the No. 2 Democrat, Wright was the presumed heir apparent when the affable Boston Irishman stepped aside, but there had been persistent talk of a possible challenge from the Democrats’ liberal wing.

The challenge never materialized. In 1986, after O’Neill announced plans to retire, Wright quickly amassed more than enough pledges from his colleagues to achieve his long-held goal of becoming speaker and thus rising to the top of his chosen profession.

Wright took office Jan. 6, 1987, at the outset of the 100th Congress and quickly embarked on an ambitious agenda that held the potential of making the Texas representative one of the most powerful and successful speakers in history. Democrats were back in control of both houses of Congress, and President Reagan was engulfed in the Iran-contra scandal.

During his first six months in office, Congress overrode two presidential vetoes, while passing bills on clean water, highways, aid to the homeless and education benefits for military personnel. Lawmakers also passed all 13 appropriations bills for the first time since 1948.

Amid the flurry of early successes, Wright paid little attention to an ethics complaint filed by Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a maverick Republican who Wright once dismissed as a troublesome “gnat.” Gingrich called Wright the most corrupt speaker of the 20th century, brandishing old newspaper articles about questionable financial deals dating back more than a decade.

Even after the House ethics committee launched a formal investigation on June 10, 1988, virtually no one was willing to predict that it would bring down the speaker. “This will be past history,” Wright confidently predicted in an interview. “If people remember it at all, they will remember it in its rightful context as an outrageous and wickedly motivated effort to hurt the speaker’s reputation.”

But the momentum changed virtually overnight in April 1989 when the 12-member ethics panel — known formally as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — ended its 10-month investigation by citing Wright with 69 violations of House rules involving his finances.

The findings were rooted in Wright’s associations with two longtime friends in Fort Worth: Mallick, the developer whom he had known since 1963, and Carlos Moore, a former newspaper printer who worked in Wright’s first congressional campaign in 1954.

The committee accused Mallick of making gifts to the Wrights in the form of use of a Fort Worth condominium, a 1979 Cadillac Seville and an $18,000-year salary to Betty Wright. The speaker was further accused of evading House limits on outside income through bulk sales of a 1984 book published by Moore, Reflections of a Public Man.

Throughout the ordeal, Wright repeatedly asserted his innocence while trying to carry out his duties as speaker. Although the ethics case ground away at his effectiveness, Wright worked with President Bush in early 1989 to produce what he considered the capstone of his congressional career — a Central American peace plan ending the U.S. military commitment to the Nicaraguan rebels.

Nevertheless, as the ethics case assumed the aura of a congressional scandal, Wright’s political base among his colleagues rapidly evaporated, and he began to see no choice but to resign.

“The last six weeks of my tenure were agonizing,” the former speaker wrote in his book Worth It All. “Now I was not certain how many of my colleagues could stand the heat. ... And I was tired. Dog tired. Mentally and physically fatigued. My duty seemed clear. If I could not be an effective Speaker, providing moral leadership, I had no wish to be speaker.”

Tears glistened in Wright’s eyes as he announced his decision on the House floor, relinquishing a post that he had spent much of his life pursuing. It took Wright months to rebound emotionally from the ordeal, but eventually he did, finding a quiet contentment in life after politics.

“I feel like I’m a very lucky man,” he once told an interviewer, saying he harbored no bitterness over his forced departure from the House. “If you have a grudge or feel bitter or resentful towards someone, the only person you hurt is yourself.”

Editor's note: This obituary originally ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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