“Ah, yes, I recall Jim Wright,” former Virginia Republican congressman William Whitehurst remarked. “Old snake oil.” The rather acidic description was no doubt a testament to the renowned oratorical skills of the former Democratic speaker of the House. But it was also a reflection of the harsh partisan political attacks that had grown alongside Wright’s power.
In fact, Wright’s success in mastering the rules and institution of Congress explained how he compiled both an impressive legislative legacy and became the first speaker in history to resign under an ethical cloud. The arc of Wright’s long congressional career embodied changes in the very institution that he loved — changes that explain the partisan, gridlocked institution today, one in which Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) just announced he would willingly give up the speaker’s gavel after a mere three years.
A child of the Great Depression and a decorated World War II airman, Wright initially chafed at the seniority and rules in Congress that seemed to restrict someone so ambitious and talented. Soon, however, he found his footing. Service on the Public Works Committee meant the power to distribute money to his colleagues, and thus the power to influence. Wright also quickly recognized his unique ability to bring spending home to his Fort Worth district, the type of “pork” that people decried except when they were the recipients.
Wright welcomed the club-like collegiality that characterized Congress in the late 1950s. It was, in fact, an era of moderation and compromise, perfect for someone like Wright. He was adept at cultivating the powerful allies required to advance professionally but also well-versed in regulatory minutiae and always willing to cut a deal.
Wright was no ideologue. This left him ideally situated to bridge his party’s Southern conservative and Northern liberal wings, at a moment when the divide between them was growing over the question of African American civil rights — a schism that Richard Nixon soon capitalized on to bring the South into the Republican fold.
Wright slowly climbed the leadership ladder, all while developing friendships on both sides of the aisle. He learned firsthand from the masters — former speakers Sam Rayburn and Carl Albert — when to console and when to criticize, when to use the carrot and when to use the stick.
Wright left his fingerprints on almost every major legislative accomplishment from the Eisenhower to the Reagan years. From water pollution legislation to the interstate highway system, from fiscal policy and the battle over the nation’s growing debt to energy policy, Wright’s stature grew.
He could negotiate, but Wright was also no stranger to hardball politics. He used every parliamentary tactic available, always interpreting the rules to his advantage or manipulating the media. A turn of a small phrase here or a choice of a word there made the difference between legislative victory and defeat.
But as the civil rights movement and antiwar protests fractured the Democratic Party in the 1960s, Wright struggled to relate to the new generation of activists shaped by the young counterculture. After Nixon’s ignominious fall, a different brand of young liberal congressmen — the “Watergate babies” — stormed Congress and demanded reform. Impatient and sometimes angry, this new class had little respect for the seniority that Wright had spent 20 years developing.
They demanded restrictions on campaign spending precisely at the moment when Wright, newly elected majority leader in 1976, had translated his fundraising skills into enhanced power. Each speech that the high-profile majority leader delivered for a colleague left someone indebted to Wright. The reformers also advocated a complete restructuring of committee jurisdictions, calling into question the very essence of Wright’s power on the Public Works and Budget committees, and they called for the replacement of committee chairmen, the people Wright had carefully cultivated for years.
The resulting democratization in congressional rules demanded by the Watergate babies threatened to cull the leadership’s power at the very time Wright hoped to employ it. Even in his own caucus, Wright was powerful — but increasingly unpopular.
With the “Reagan Revolution” came a new wave of strident conservative Republicans. Less practical and more ideologically against government than their predecessors, they added a new dimension to Wright’s problems. Televised congressional sessions and cable news exacerbated the fraught political dynamic. Compromise had finally become weakness, as politics became more of a blood sport.
In this context, Wright became speaker of the House in 1987.
His term at the helm of the 100th Congress was one of the most productive periods in congressional history, but his twisting — both of arms and the rules in general — produced inevitable backlash in the new congressional ecosystem. His effectiveness at blocking the Reagan agenda, most notably with regard to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, enraged Republicans and made him a key target.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a generation of congressmen, including Wright, found themselves exposed as the standards of acceptable behavior that they had grown accustomed to suddenly changed. As collegiality gave way to acrimony, no longer was there lax enforcement of limits on outside income or the use of staff for personal business, among other once-common practices. And no longer were one’s personal affairs private.
A new era of sharp-elbowed partisans happily pounced on Wright and others like him who operated by the old rules. It little mattered if Wright’s personal financial transactions were trivial or technically legal, or if they had been commonplace on both sides of the aisle for years. Those days were gone.
Just the appearance of financial improprieties in the new age of media-driven Machiavellian politics was all it took, an opening for charges of “snake oil.” It was personal, and it was ugly. Many of the charges were outrageous and patently false — but they kept coming, each exacting a political toll.
When Wright resigned, he was not the first victim of the new political culture, but he was its biggest fish. In his resignation speech, Wright pleaded for a return to civility, reminding America of the Congress he once knew. It was not to be. “Snake oil” politics apparently worked — a lesson Democrats learned as well.
Today the roster of scandals is almost too lengthy to recall, claiming both Democrats and Republicans alike, running the gamut from financial corruption to extramarital affairs, toppling everyone from powerful chairmen such as Dan Rostenkowski (who went to jail) to anonymous rank-and-file members. Wright’s own nemesis, Newt Gingrich, resigned from the speakership and eventually Congress, thanks to a combination of ethical issues and pushing too far by trying to impeach President Bill Clinton. Gingrich’s would-be successor, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), resigned even before assuming the speakership.
With each charge, the wheels of Congress as an institution — so productive in Wright’s era — slowed, the affected party vowed revenge, and the poisonous atmosphere deepened. Today, few Americans hold the high regard that Jim Wright had for Congress. Before his death in 2015, it was one of his last laments.