LOOKING BACK NOW, Jim Wright, the House majority leader, the man many think will be the next speaker of the House, exclaims, "This has been the hardest year I've experienced in the Congress -- the most frustrating year. If they were all like this, I'd have to have my head examined to stay in the job."
The frustration that forces Jim Wright's practiced baritone up into a high-pitched complaint and shoots his trademark eyebrows skyward is a symptom and a symbol of the plight of the House Democrats.
As the only remaining remnant of the erstwhile all-ruling party still running part of the federal government, they expected to share power with the new Republican president and Senate, to shape policy and, occasionally at least, to score a partisan victory.
Instead, they have been bested at every turn by a president they underestimated, losing repeatedly in the political and public relations battles over programs they put on the books. Though some of them believe their own careers will be spared in 1982 by the recession, they look back on what has happened this year with profound distaste.
That sense of shock, dismay and frustration pervades the journal that Jim Wright kept of this, his 27th year in the House and his fifth as the Democrats' floor leader.
In its pages, the 59-year-old Texan -- a proud, sometimes pretentious figure whose legislative and oratorical skills have won widespread admiration even from those who find his temperament hard to take -- set out with remarkable candor his conflicting emotions in this extraordinary year.
He wrote of his pride in emulating the success of his hero, Sam Rayburn, in placing young Texans on key legislative committees -- and his sense of betrayal at being made to look "a bit like a fool" when some of them defected to the White House side and helped defeat the Democrats' budget and tax plans.
He wrote of his puzzlement at Ronald Reagan -- a man who "seemed terribly shallow" in some ways but made Wright "stand in awe" of his political skills.
And he wrote of his "resentment" at the constant drumfire of criticism from conservatives back home in Fort Worth, who had supported him for years for the prestige and the projects he brought to the city, but now force him to raise and spend $1 million to defend what had been a safe seat.
Wright thought he was beyond that kind of harassment. He thought that his voting record of support for national defense, public works and liberal welfare programs had broad backing in his varied constituency. He thought that by using his influence and raising his voice with equal vigor to urge big aerospace ventures and to decry high interest rates, he was doing what they wanted.
He thought that when he moved from a one-vote, third-ballot victory in the 1976 majority leader's race to unanimous reelection this session, he was safely on the ladder for elevation to the speakership he covets.
He may still be proved right in all those beliefs. But this year has shaken Jim Wright as it has shaken his party. The solid middle ground on which he has chosen to stand -- like his hero, Rayburn, before him -- has turned unexpectedly to quicksand. Fort Worth, the Texas delegation, the House majority -- none seems as solid as it did last January.
And the result has been that Jim Wright, a complex, enigmatic man, probably more introspective than his salesman's personality and lifetime shell of political toughness allow most people to see, has been forced to look hard at his own strengths and weaknesses.
In a recent interview, looking back at the 198l session, Wright said, "There have been rewards, of course, but they've come so seldom this year. I have been singularly unnsuccessful in providing the kind of leadership this post would seem to require. At least, I haven't been able to produce a majority on the three big critical votes (on budget and tax policy) that set the tone for where the country is going.... I think we had logic on our side; we had facts on our side. But it was extremely frustrating ... It's made me ask myself if I had what it takes to be a leader."
At the end of that interview, Wright invited The Washington Post to examine all -- and reprint parts -- of his journal. It turned out to be a House Democratic leader's variation on the Atlantic Monthly interviews, spanning the same period, which William Greider conducted with Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman, the Reagan official for whom Wright has the least regard.
From Jim Wright's journal, Jan. 9:
"Once again we got everything we asked from Steering and Policy for our Texas delegation. Kent Hance goes on Ways and Means. Phil Gramm on Budget.... It is more, I think, than chauvinism which tickles my fancy in being instrumental in the success of our region. I think these fellows represent a point of view which has fallen somewhat out of fashion in our party in recent years, but which is closer to the popular currents. In one sense, I guess it pleases me to think that I'm not forgetting in all of the national priorities ... to look out for 'our own.' Sam Rayburn always did this."
Of all the vexations Wright has faced this year, none has cost him more -- personally and politically -- than the defection of two Texas Democrats, Reps. Phil Gramm and Kent Hance, to become key strategists and cosponsors of the Reagan administration's budget and tax bills. In January, as the journal passage suggests, Wright used his influence to secure them memberships on key committees, relying on what he says were assurances from them that they would argue their personal conservative viewpoints within the committees but then "close ranks" once the committee decision was made.
In the case of Gramm, who had voted with the Republicans on budget decisions in 1980, Wright was skeptical about the assurances from the start. In the same Jan. 9 journal entry, he wrote:
"Frankly, I had mixed emotions about Phil. He is such a gadfly. He will make waves. He'll grandstand. He'll get in the papers. He is a fly in my Fort Worth soup. No victory I can achieve for moderation will be sufficient for him. He'll want to damn it publicly as 'too little,' while reaching for the politically attractive but practically unattainable ultimates.
"But he is, after all, one of 'our own.' He wants to be friendly and doesn't really understand how his playing to the gallery on proposed budget cuts, etc., can undermine my position. He is energetic, indefatigable, resourceful. He is genuinely interested in the budget process and deserves a chance to work at it. We certainly need people on that committee, particularly this year, who will work. There's one other possible consolation in Phil's being on the committee; as a party to its deliberations, he'll be less likely to undermine the final product of those deliberations on the House floor."
That forecast, of course, proved wrong, when Gramm collaborated actively with the White House in framing the budget and reconciliation measures that prevailed on the House floor over the bills Wright and the Democratic leadership were backing.
On April l2, Wright said in his journal that Gramm's "blatant open split with the Democrats has made me look a bit like a fool. And the worst part of it is that I can't seem to bring my fellow Texas Democrats along.... They perceive that there's a public clamor for 'the Reagan program.' ... I can't blame them in a way, I guess. The newspapers are making a hero out of Gramm."
Wright is unsparingly critical of Gramm, less so of Hance, who, Wright said, "really did not want to bolt" and become the Democratic cosponsor of the administration tax bill. "He just couldn't withstand the pressures from his district, he tells me, and finally he caved in."
But the Texas defections, whatever their cause, weakened Wright's standing as majority leader -- as he readily understotes (ood and acknowledged. "Jim has been hurt by this," said a fellow Texan who stayed loyal to his leader. "You're supposed to be able to count on your friends, and Jim vouched for the guys who walked out on the party." There were nine Texas defections on the first budget vote, nine on the second, eight on the key tax vote and seven on the emergency government funding bill which provoked Reagan's first veto in November.
"They made me examine my hole card and ask if I had the stuff to be a leader," Wright said. "They made me wonder where I had lacked in persuasion to lead my own delegation. I thought when the chips were down, I could count on them. But I was wrong. If I'm not capable of being more persuasive, and more successful in leading the majority, then I guess I ought not to be the majority leader."
But in the next breath, Wright rejected the idea that he is crippled by his effort to define a "moderate" position in a party increasingly polarized between liberals and conservatives. "It is such a diverse party that I believe only a reasonably moderate person can lead the party," he said.
From Jim Wright's journal, July 7:
"The past eight days in Fort Worth have been reassuring. They have revived my spirits. The crepe myrtles are in bloom and the lawns and pasture are a full, verdant green from the rains.... Most of all ... I've been bouyed by the repetitious reminders that there are many others -- perhaps not yet a majority but a growing number -- who recognize the severity of Reagan's demands and who are both aware and appreciative of my efforts. Apparently my closing plea to the House on the reconciliation bill received wide television coverage. Many people mentioned having seen it ...
"Terry Dolan, the NCPAC hired gun, has been in Fort Worth twice during the past two weeks raising money for a media blitz against me. They seem to be grooming Woodie Woods (the mayor of Fort Worth) to oppose me in '82. No doubt there soon -- so indecently early -- will blossom a full-fledged campaign to discredit me in my home base. I'll chafe and feel resentment over the attacks and unflattering characterizations. But just for now, as I fly back to Washington after eight days at home, I feel better and more at peace than I have for some weeks."
Jim Wright came to the House of Representatives in 1955 at 32, a graduate of the University of Texas, a veteran of flying B24 bombers in the South Pacific, schooled in politics by one term in the Texas legislature and three years as mayor of Weatherford.
Below the presidential level, Texas was then a one-party state, and Wright's elections were mere formalities. In 1958, he raised only $3,600 for his campaign, refused any donations over
00 and refunded contributors 28 percent of their donations when he wound up with a surplus.
But the picture began to change in 1976. Jimmy Carter carried the district that year, but his defense and energy policies quickly lost favor there. Though he had his own bitter disagreements with Carter over water projects and other issues, Wright was himself a victim of "guilt by association" with the administration, and his reelection campaigns became much tougher.
That explains Wright's reaction last April 13 when he was in Las Vegas to address the National Association of Broadcasters convention: "Just as I returned from the morning panel, right at noon, intent on getting swimsuits on and soaking up some sun, Betty's face revealed to me that there was trouble.... Today, Terry Dolan of NCPAC held a press conference in Washington, named three House members and one senator whom his group has 'targeted' for public excoriation and vowed ... to spend $450,000 on TV ads expressly attacking me in the Dallas-Fort Worth media market as a 'liberal obstructionist.' I am the principal target for NCPAC's venom for the whole coming year, it seems."
That is not the way the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) sees it, of course. Dolan, NCPAC's chairman, said Wright was ly understotes (chosen in hopes that the campaign could remove from the House "the principal troublemaker" for the Reagan economic program. "By opposing him," Dolan said, "we are sending a message to every other member of Congress that we are not concerned about someone's standing in Washington; we are ready to oppose them at home if they oppose the program the country voted for."
NCPAC has run three full-page ads in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, blasting Wright's "liberal voting record." While its TV spots were rejected by the three network affiliates in Fort Worth, Dolan said a three-week run on independent stations was seen by more than half the people in a November survey.
Wright said he expects "another very difficult election year." Mayor Woods has taken his name out of consideration, but efforts to recruit a strong challenger are continuing. How difficult the race will be depends a great deal on how the economy fares in the next 11 months and how well President Reagan's popularity survives.
In a recent interview, Wright said, "I believe President Reagan is still popular personally. I think folks still want to give him the benefit of any reasonable doubt. I think folks instinctively want to hold him relatively blameless from the peccadillos of the Stockmans and the others in the administration. But I think they are finding it increasingly difficult to rationalize that position."
They are not the only ones. The picture Wright draws of his own relationship with Reagan is one of great ambivalence: He liked him personally, he said, from the beginning, and for a timeentertained the notion that it might be the kind of cooperative relationship Rayburn had with Eisenhower. But increasingly, he said, he has become suspicious of both the policies and the methods of this president.
From Jim Wright's journal, June ll:
"There is no doubt about it. Ronald Reagan is a charmer ... a consummate politician. He has enthralled a substantial majority of the American people. He comes across as such a fundamentally nice guy, humble and able to take a joke on himself, with no apparent trace of bitterness or ugliness.
"Yet he adroitly has manipulated the Congress to his will. He got every single Republican vote for his budget and winsomely pulled 63 Democrats away from our leadership team. He has charmed fellows like Hance and Stenholm into risking the scorn and censure of their fellow Democrats. He skilfully flim- flammed Tip and me, to say nothing of Dan Rostenkowski, into believing him serious about wanting to 'compromise' his tax bill.
"The public charade was artful. By the time we met with him, however, he already had satisfied himself he could get a better deal from the conservatives (no doubt his clear intention all along) -- and the whole meeting was an ultimatum (ever so friendly and politely put) to which he offered us only a chance to surrender.
"He was unwilling even to consider the slightest deviation from his three-layered cuts of 5, 10 and 10 percent annually. Oh, he has appropriated enough adornments from Rostenkowski's program to camouflage the bald Kemp-Roth approach, which the public has mistrusted. He has even contrived it so that the press no longer even refers to it as 'Kemp- Roth,' but rather as President Reagan's 'compromise.' By all this fancy footwork, he has dazzled the press, and even with his blooper on Social Security, we really haven't laid a glove on him. He is a pro.
"It's odd. In conversations over programs, he has seemed terribly shallow, albeit charming. He isn't able -- or willing -- to discuss programs in detail. His philosophical approach is superficial, overly simplistic, one-dimensional. What he preaches is pure economic pap, glossed over with uplifting homilies and inspirational chatter.
"Yet so far, the guy is making it work. Appalled by what seems to me a lack of depth, I stand in awe nevertheless of his political skill. I am not sure that I have seen its equal."
From beginning to end of 1981, Wright, like most other Democrattes (s in Washington, was unable to calculate what they were dealing with in Reagan -- or how to play whatever cards the voters had left in their hands.
At first, he said, he hoped "to be able to work with the new president as Mr. Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson had worked with President Eisenhower, not as obstructors but as constructive helpers, trying to bail him out in the national interest when he got in difficult circumstances."
Behind that high-minded principle was the realization -- which Rayburn and Johnson shared as Democratic congressional leaders in their day -- that the opposition president had tapped a deep vein of public sentiment and could be a formidable adversary.
Early in 1981, Wright was throwing out all kinds of conciliatory gestures. In March, he joined Gramm and House Republican Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in a joint press conference introducing a bill designed to force a balanced budget in two years. He predicted that Congress would endorse most of Reagan's recommended budget cuts -- drawing criticism from some liberals for allegedly capitulating too easily.
The budget negotiations never got very far, and in early May, Reagan -- with the help of Gramm and other defecting Democrats -- rolled over Wright and Co. on the House floor. Nonetheless, Wright played the role of mediator once again as the tax bill was shaped in the Ways and Means Committee.
Operating on his own, without consultation either with Speaker O'Neill or Ways and Means Chairman Rostenkowski, Wright walked into a June l meeting in the Oval Office with a hastily concocted compromise of his own -- keyed to a 5-5-5 series of tax cuts, which he said would meet Reagan "exactly halfway."
Despite what he took to be signals of interest from some of the people in the meeting, Wright's plan fell flat both with congressional Democrats and the administration. Still, his vanity was pricked when he saw unnamed White House officials quoted in the Star- Telegram the next day as describing his plan as "the same old business as usual ... not even a tax cut ... just redistributing the wealth."
At that point, Wright said, he concluded that he had been "gullible. Prior to that, I, along with Dan Rostenkowski, had wanted to believe that the president was serious in calling us to the White House to explore possibilities of a compromise on the tax cut. The speaker never believed it. He said he was setting us up to use us as patsies. It turns out the speaker was right.... We were had."
By late June, when Gramm-Latta II, the reconciliation measure, came to the floor, Wright was in full cry, the oratorical powers for which he is admired by most of his colleagues turned against the elusive target of Reagan.
"Let me say just a word about what we owe the president," he told the House. "I think we owe to the president of the United States cooperation, our best advice and an open- minded hearing. We do not owe to him obeisance, obedience and submissiveness. Yet that is what is being demanded of us. We are being asked simply to put our faith in David Stockman and let him do our thinking for us."
Wright had always had a lot of trouble putting his faith in Stockman. As early as Feb. l0, he wrote in his journal:
"There is something vaguely disquieting to me about Stockman. I knew little of his backgrund until Sunday when I read an article on him in The Washington Post news magazine supplement. Intuitively, I've felt there was something amiss in him. Reading his history identifies what it was that I instinctively apprehended. He had changed stripes like a chameleon -- from antiwar activist to Moynihan Democrat to John Anderson 'liberal' Republican to rabid right-winger, all in l2 or 15 years! And he has used people to the advantage of his career advancement at every step of the way. Maybe I do him an injustice, but I see him as dangerously self-centered and bloodless. Smart, yes, and dedicated -- but dedicated, I fear, to Stockman."
It had been a long year and 1982 would offer no breather, either in the Capattes (itol or back home in Fort Worth. But as Jim Wright wound up his reflections, he spoke as a politician who thinks that his turn is coming.
"It's easier, now," he said. "I can sense a change each time I go home. There's a kind of gnawing dissatisfaction with the failing economy.... The home builders and auto dealers are saying they can't hold on for six months. There's a seething unrest in the minority community ... and I shudder to think what may occur. I take no pleasure in what I see coming. I remember the last Depression, which most of my colleagues do not. But if it is a matter of who was proved right -- of which leaders and which party the people can trust -- then at least in that respect I can hold my head erect."
The last entry in Jim Wright's journal was written on Nov. l6, after he had read his old antagonist Stockman's interviews in The Atlantic Monthly. This is, in part, what he wrote:
"Stockman admits doctoring the economic assumptions when the analytical econometric computers at OMB did not give him the answers he wanted. Those of us on the Budget Committee knew this all along, tried in vain to warn our colleagues and the public. They didn't want to know it at the time, however; and hence we are facing a probable deficit of about $80 billion for fiscal '82....
"So now we know that Stockman was not hypnotized by the so-called 'supply-side' theology. He knew the figures the president used to justify it were wildly improbable. He knew that the characterizations which Reagan used in his budget and tax messages on TV to describe the Democratic alternative budget and tax plans were quite plainly dishonest. In other words, Stockman knew that the president was lying to the American people. The deeper, more profound question: Did the president know it?
"That question haunts me. But a part of me says that I do not want to know the answer. Perhaps I am happier not to know the answer. I want to believe that the president was unaware of the gross distortions and grievous inaccuracies contained in those two speeches."