"It's a myth," Jim Wright mumbles, as he tries to duck out of his office for more coffee.

The subject is the Wright temper, notoriously quick and mean. The new speaker of the House made headlines a few years back by threatening to punch out Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) on the House floor, and he once asked Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to step outside because the congressman had cursed at him. Another time he hurled a book at writer Larry L. King, then on his staff. And Betty Wright, his wife of 14 years, tells the story of how, shortly after they were married, her husband flung the contents of the freezer across the room because he couldn't get the door shut.

The flying food did no damage, however -- and these days, Wright's mate has a reputation as the one person who can rein in the speaker's runaway rage.

"What's myth?" she demands from across the room, eyes locked on her man, fingers tip-to-tip. "Your temper? Or that I'm a calming influence?"

"Well," he says like a little kid caught fibbing, "I'm working on it."

My very dearest Betty,

For thirteen years we've shared this life --

I the husband, you the wife;

I hope your life is richer than

The day on which this all began.

-- Jim Wright, November 1985

Millie O'Neill she is definitely not.

The wife of the former House leader barely tolerated the capital. She never got involved in Tip O'Neill's job, didn't move here until he was in the leadership, and then eschewed the congressional dash and dazzle, refusing interviews.

BettyWright is happily defining her own Washington: choosing which boards to sit on (Ford's Theatre and the National Theatre), picking her projects and her friends. Her husband's office is quick to hand out her biography, and she's the one keeping a diary these days.

Still, it would be too easy to paint the House's first lady as just another ambitious Power Spouse. Like Nancy Reagan, she has certainly made her husband's career her crusade. But she also -- like Mrs. Reagan -- seems motivated more by fierce loyalty than by the needs of her own ego.

On this morning, before his wife joins him in his office for an interview, the speaker seems a little antsy. To pass the time, he shows off a portrait of Betty that hangs next to his desk. In the painting, she wears a lavender dress; soft curls hug her face.

At 62, she looks 42. "Tell her that, will ya?" Wright, 64, implores his guest. "She really takes good care of herself -- dieting, exercise, no drinking ... It's not a religious thing or anything. She just doesn't drink."

When she comes in 30 minutes late, looking poised and stylish, he jumps up and brushes her cheek with his lips. She's wearing an Eleanor Brenner suit, trendy but elegant, royal blue with broad padded shoulders. On her left forefinger is a huge topaz ring he had made for her; she wears no wedding band. Her chocolate-brown hair is cropped close and her makeup is perfect.

She seems at home in his office and spends a lot of time there. He calls her "darlin'," and friends say he dotes on her. The two are often seen together around town, holding hands like lovers 40 years their junior.

Indeed, Betty Wright's young-mindedness may prove one of her husband's greatest assets. Reviews on the new speaker have been mixed so far.

Wright's detractors say he lacks warmth, and portray him as out of step with today's Congress -- an old-style pol at heart, a pale imitation of his all-powerful Texas predecessor, Sam Rayburn. His flowery oratory seems more suited to stump campaigning than to television, and many Democrats cringed when Wright decided to deliver the response to this year's State of the Union address himself.

The speaker draws praise for being more action oriented than the man he succeeded, Tip O'Neill. Yet he annoyed many colleagues when he stepped out front with a tax hike proposal the same day he got elected to the job.

So Jim Wright frets, concerned that "the young people" don't understand him, worried that the talk about his temper has gotten out of hand. Betty Wright is here to help with these nagging misperceptions. Together, they're out to soften Wright's hard edges, to reposition the man David Stockman called "a snake-oil vendor par excellence."

"Jim has another side," she says, settling into a chair. "They keep bringing that silly thing out, that he was a Golden Glove boxer. Now, that doesn't mean you're a fighter by profession."

"I was a scoutmaster and I was a boxing coach," he explains. "In a town like Weatherford {Tex.}, they give you all these free jobs."

In a later interview, she shows off the poetry he's written for her, and talks about the landscapes he's painted: "He is a romantic, very artistic." He even shops for her himself, she says. For Valentine's Day, he gave her a little gold heart and a crystal teddy bear.

She buys his clothes, and has toned down the one trademark of his physical appearance -- his eyebrows, naturally thick and upright, not unlike the coat of a porcupine. "Lately, his face seems more relaxed -- it's the haircut, the eyebrows," says good friend Phyllis Coelho, wife of Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif). "I know she's responsible for it."

The speaker's two-pack-a-day smoking was also on her agenda, and she needled him into quitting ("I prayed that he would get just sick enough to quit," she says, "but not sick enough to be really ill -- so help me, I did").

She's the doctor, he's the patient -- and she takes his political temperature whenever she can.

"I encountered it at the Greenbrier," says Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), referring to an annual Democratic retreat held at the posh West Virginia resort. "After he had spoken she came up to several members and asked what we thought of his speech in both delivery and content. She was very interested in how he had done."

It was Betty who first broke it to Wright a few years ago that he was having a problem with the younger, more reform-minded members of Congress. Around that time it was rumored that a Dick Gephardt-type might challenge him for speaker.

"I heard that people thought he was of a different generation," that there was "a generation gap," she says. "So I might say to him, 'Why don't we try to get closer to younger people? It's a good idea {to have} a closer relationship with younger members' ...

"I don't know that he was focusing on it. Now he does."

In a surprise move, for example, Wright appointed a far more liberal young Michigan congressman, David Bonior, as chief deputy whip. Naming Bonior, says former O'Neill aide Christopher Matthews, "showed dash" and gives Wright an ally "very well positioned on the other end of the spectrum."

It's good, Wright says, that his wife points out his weaknesses as well as his strengths. "One time I came home fulminating in frustration after a Budget Committee hearing," he recalls, "and I was saying, 'I explained it to them, I told them exactly what's involved, and they can't see it, they're not moving fast enough!' Betty said, 'Jim, do you think they elected you leader or do you think they elected you dictator?' "

"Without attachment," we would say

And meant to try to stay that way

But fate would have it otherwise:

We read it in each other's eyes.

The photo album is titled "The Many Moods of Betty." "This book is the property of Jim Wright," the inscription reads, "and deals with his favorite subject: Mrs. Jim Wright." In it are 50 pictures -- Betty in bathing suits, Betty in shorts, Betty in dresses, Betty in evening gowns -- all labeled in his hand.

Sitting in the study of their McLean home, flipping through the album, pulling out the poetry addressed to "Dearest Betty," husband and wife joke and coo like the high school sweethearts they never were. They didn't have their first date, in fact, until both were in their mid-forties.

So what was the origin of this romantic union? Did Mr. Wright chase the Fair Maiden around town until she acceded? Was it love at first sight, Prince Charming of the House smitten by the Cinderella on his staff?

Not quite.

Jim Wright met Betty Hay in 1965, when she came to work in his office as a secretary; she later became the administrative assistant for the House Public Works Committee, where he served as a senior member. Five years later, after he separated from his first wife, they started going out.

"It went slow," she says.

"This one night he asked me to go out for dinner ... That was the very start of it ... But he was dating," she says. "Here he was, an eligible bachelor, and everybody was fixing him up. I guess he was just playing the field and, really, he just did not want to get involved. His divorce hit him hard."

"I never would call it playing the field," he says, a little uncomfortable with the girl talk.

"People were very ..." His voice trails off.

"Helpful!" she says, laughing.

"Very helpful," he agrees. They both laugh. "Well, someone goes along with a thing like that -- you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

"I know he didn't want to make a commitment because as we did start going together, I didn't want to see anyone else and he was still seeing others," she says. "I'll tell you a little trick I played on him -- and I wouldn't tell him this for years.

"I really liked him by this time. He'd come and tell me, 'I'm going to so-and-so's house,' and I'd say, 'I know they're going to have a date for you,' and he'd say no, and sure enough! Anyway, I finally said I'm tired of this. So one Saturday night he asked me for a date and I said, 'I'm sorry, I already have one.'

"But I didn't ... So I stayed home, and sure enough the phone started ringing and I didn't answer it. He must have called up until midnight.

"The next day he said to me, 'Oh you must have had a good time last night.' I said, 'I sure did, I had a great time' -- listening to that telephone ring! But after that, things seemed to change."

"I didn't want to get married again," Jim Wright says, getting in his side of the story. "I was in debt, for one thing. I had a very costly experience when I ran for the Senate in the early '60s and it took a long, long while to get out. I just didn't think I was a very good catch."

"Men feel like a failure, too," she says.

"That's true," he agrees. "I had financial obligations to my former wife ... I thought I was doing a lady no favor."

"I finally had to talk him into it," she says. "I said, 'We can get out of debt. We can make it.' And we did."

So to each other we were drawn,

Inexorably as the dawn

Is brought each morn to fill the sky;

We loved each other, you and I.

Jim Wright's first wife was his college sweetheart, Mary Ethelyn (Mab) Lemons, who bore their five children and helped him realize his early political ambitions. They met at Weatherford College and married in 1942, while Wright was in the service.

By 1946, he had been elected to the Texas state legislature. Though considered a centrist today, the Fort Worth native was quickly labeled a dangerous leftist by more conservative Texas Democrats when he proposed taxing oil and gas interests to fund social services. Running for reelection in 1948, he found his campaign irreparably damaged by a bizarre incident.

A few months before the election, one of Wright's opponents, a zealous anticommunist, was shot to death. The murder has never been solved (the Texas Ranger who led the investigation believes gambling debts may have been involved), but before the man died, he blamed the shooting on communist "henchmen." Witnesses concluded that he had been trying to implicate Wright (though no evidence to support this link was ever found), and the ensuing rumors helped defeat the young legislator by a margin of 38 votes.

After this defeat, Wright was elected mayor of Weatherford for two terms. He landed in Congress in 1955 -- which, in a way, was the beginning of the end of his marriage.

"Mab just didn't like Washington very much," says Larry L. King. "It was difficult for her to change with the times ... and Jim was working all the time in those days."

In Congress, Wright chose to sit on the Public Works Committee. The assignment may have been boring and low profile, but it essentially guaranteed him easy reelection, putting him in a position to steer federal dollars in the direction of his district. He could also help with projects in the districts of his friends -- and years later, he would call in all those favors.

When Lyndon Johnson, a Texas mentor, became president, Wright asked for a Cabinet or ambassadorial post, but was refused. He then ran for the Senate seat vacated by Johnson, the first to file in a field of 71. His defeat in that race left Wright in a kind of career limbo for many years.

But in 1976, Wright saw and seized his chance. Democrats John McFall of New York, Phil Burton of California and Richard Bolling of Missouri were locked in a three-way race for majority leader. Wright became the last candidate.

He campaigned relentlessly, calling in chits from Public Works and promising new ones. After three ballots, he won a one-vote upset victory over Burton. The win all but assured him the speakership.

"He got in there by shoehorning himself in there," says Craig Raupe, a former aide and longtime friend.

Betty Hay took a more roundabout route to Washington. She grew up in St. Louis, the only child of a sickly mother who had been abandoned by her husband when Betty was an infant. To help pay the bills, she became a professional tap dancer in her teens, working in chorus lines at nightclubs.

Her life was not easy, and today she exudes the self-confidence that often springs from hardships overcome. "It's made me more independent, more of a survivor," she says. "I'm not hurt as easily."

She married a pilot and, after her mother died, moved to Fort Worth. Trained as a secretary by this time, she got a job in the hotel business. After 10 years and a divorce, Betty says, she "wanted to make more money" and thought about moving. Through the Texas Employment Commission, she got a secretarial job in Wright's Washington office.

When the two eventually began dating, her friends believe, she had a hard time with congressional wives. "There was this impression that she stole him from Mab, which just wasn't true," says one friend.

"I think part of it was that everyone loved Mab," says Raupe. "I was a little bit slow to warm. I was friendly on the surface; it just took me longer to really accept her. Here she was, this knockout ...

"Then in getting to know her, I came to realize she was really tough, there was a lot there ... Jim had his first tough race in 1974, and there she was right on the front lines ... She was a rock."

Betty and Jim were married in 1972, shortly after his divorce became final, "in a kind of old-fashioned wedding," Wright says.

"Betty wrote the script and I wore a Rhett Butler kind of tux. She chose to have strawberries and champagne at the reception."

She eventually resigned her $24,000-a-year job at the Public Works Committee, but not until he became majority leader. Wright calls her resignation "more or less a matter of public gesture," made necessary by conflict-of-interest questions raised at the time. Now she works as a customer rep for a firm that organizes management seminars, and is vice president of an investment firm she and Wright started with a Texas developer.

In recent years she has made the effort to keep the Wright family together; before Mab died last year, Betty insisted on her spending a number of holidays with them and the four Wright children (a fifth child, born with Down's syndrome, died before reaching his second birthday).

And shortly before Mab's death, Wright's oldest daughter, Ginger, asked Betty if she could include her mother at a Fort Worth fundraiser for the soon-to-be-speaker. After all, Ginger argued, her mother had been there for his early years.

Betty okayed the idea and even came up with the right phrase for the introduction. In front of 5,000 people at the Fort Worth Convention Center, Jim Wright introduced "the mother of my children."

When Mab made it to the stage, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

And now I love our nice white house

In which the handwork of my spouse

Reflects the personality of you

In every room, from every view

As his dinner guests began arriving at the large brick house, the terrible-tempered speaker was looking a little like a schoolboy at his first prom. He was wearing a blue blazer with a yellow tie and matching silk hankie.

"Betty likes to push me just a little farther than I would normally go," he whispered.

The night's gathering was part of a deliberate attempt to reach out to House colleagues. Last year, the Wrights built an addition onto the house expressly for this purpose. It's a large sun room, big enough for three tables of 10. Jim and Betty designed it together, and he speaks of it fondly in decoratorese:

"It serves as a combination sun room-California room," he says. "Or as a dining room for larger groups ... It lets us enjoy our sphere of personal relationships a little more broadly.

"Betty has said that the best job in government is the vice president's job, for two reasons: Nobody ever shoots at a vice president and he has a big dining room."

The Wrights' house, a kind of poor man's Tara in a new McLean development, cost them $228,000 in 1983 -- a modest sum in a town where price tags can run into the millions. But while they don't live extravagantly, they live well. There are oriental rugs and pretty peach and beige furniture, all of which looks new.

Jim Wright's most recent financial disclosure statement, for 1986, shows he has come a long way from his days of debt. The statement (which indicates only broad ranges of assets) shows income from various oil and gas investments, dividends, interest, book royalties and sale of stock that together could bring him from $100,000 to $263,000 annually. In addition, it shows holdings in various companies that could be worth anywhere from $205,000 to $540,000, with liabilities of between $75,000 and $180,000.

As for the entertainment budget, Wright says evenings like this one are paid for by a group of supporters called the Wright Congressional Club, which donates funds for unreimbursable expenses.

He uses the parties to bridge, to heal, to make friends.

Among the evening's guests were a number of liberal Democrats -- Bonior, Mineta, Colorado's Pat Schroeder, Maryland's Steny Hoyer, Ohio's Mary Rose Oakar -- all very grateful to be there.

"I'm just checking the place out," announced Oakar.

"Mr. Speaker, I thank you so much for including me," chirped Mineta.

"Well Norm," sighed the speaker, like a man about to confide a secret, "the party is much better because you're here."

Someone asked Wright if he still has his Army jacket, which he promptly fetched and modeled for the crowd. Everyone swooned when he proved he could still button it.

Dinner was served by tuxedoed waiters, preceded by grace. Guests dined on fancy salmon under another huge portrait of Betty, again in lavender. Near the end, Wright delivered a flowery toast, wishing those present "sunshine in your windowpanes, and a song in your heart at twilight."

Betty Wright, meanwhile, had some questions she wanted to ask her dinner partner, Pat Williams (D-Mont.).

At one point, she leaned toward Williams -- with whom her husband often attends professional boxing matches -- and queried him about what he and her husband see in the fights. And then she cleverly polled the congressman on a very critical issue.

She said, Williams reported later, " 'I had hoped that when Jim's hair lost its redness and turned gray, that his temper would go too. What do you think?' "

Williams didn't dare to answer.