Others who took President Reagan at his word that he wanted peace in Central America never lived, professionally, to tell the tale. Thomas O. Enders of the State Department was dispatched to another post for making progress. Philip C. Habib, Foggy Bottom's prize trouble-shooter who came within an ace of agreement, was forced out of office.
But House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) is another story. He was invited into the president's parlor last August and asked to become copilot of still another craft headed for peace. To the subsequent chagrin of his host, he seized the controls. When he was asked, as he puts it, "to bail out over the ocean," and go along with the administration strategy of doing nothing, he just said no.
The Latins on both sides sensed a power vacuum in the White House and applied to the man who is after the vice president in the line of succession, a man who, they might have noticed, is not afraid of Reagan, or of talking about taxes. They spotted him, rightly, as a gambler.
Last week, the speaker acted as secretary of state for Latin America. All the traffic in Arias peace plan diplomacy went through his office. He conferred with the contras. He received Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, who couldn't get near the White House, despite muffled promises of direct talks ; he conferred with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who has been designated as the mediator in the quest for a contra-Sandinista cease-fire. The White House knew, too late, that they had guessed wrong about Wright. He wasn't kidding.
The result: a picture of Ortega and the cardinal, with the pope's U.S. representative, Archbishop Pio Laghi, all chatting and smiling on the steps of the papal nuncio's residence. The White House has been raging for six years that Ortega is persecuting Catholics in Nicaragua. If he is the scourge of the church, how come the pope doesn't know it?
Wright also lined up Paul Warnke, who negotiated the SALT II pact, in case His Eminence needed a little backup.
It was a show of power and leadership that the Democrats moan their party cannot provide.
The White House, aware of the devastating public relations damage, turned apoplectic. It unleashed, through an unnamed "senior administration official," a diatribe against Wright for perpetrating "a serious setback to the process" and "guerrilla theater." GOP loyalists chimed in with cries of meddling and interference -- although with what they did not say.
Wright, back home in Texas, saw the Sunday papers and became furious in turn. He demanded a White House meeting "to clear the air." He got a summit: the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser. Not attending was the man fingered by Wright as his accuser, Elliott Abrams, the discredited and embittered assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, who lied about his role in secret contra aid and is now persona non grata to Congress.
Afterwards, the White House issued a communique that revealed anew the need for Wright's meddling. "The president strongly stressed to the speaker the need for additional nonlethal assistance for the Freedom Fighters."
Wright held a small postsummit press luncheon, at which he suggested that it is a free country -- something that has not occurred to many members of Congress in the Reagan reign. He did nothing he was not asked to do.
He was unrepentant. "I wouldn't undo it if I could," he said.
Democrats are pleased, if bemused, by Wright's daring performance as peace-maker. In 1979, Wright, a fluent speaker of Spanish, visited Managua and got a promise of early elections from the Sandinistas. When it failed to materialize, he felt personally betrayed and advocated a harder line. Although he actually never voted for military aid, in May 1983 he split the party by attacking Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) for his emotional answer to Reagan's molten call for contra aid on national television.
Wright warned Dodd -- ironically, in light of the heat he is taking today, that "it is a dangerous exercise for people to club the president on a delicate matter of foreign policy."
What may have converted Wright was a bitter showdown in August 1983 with House freshmen who told him that if he wanted to be speaker (he was then majority leader) he had better speak for the liberal majority.
Nobody expected him to be quite so aggressive, or effective. The administration obviously thought last August it had a fall guy. Instead it got a monster. This is definitely the last time Reagan asks the speaker to participate in "bipartisan foreign policy."