Jim Wright was huge in Texas and as Speaker of the House of Representatives carried a dignity and charm to the office that made him even more effective.
With the support and tutoring of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, Jim Wright managed to pass and promote more new laws than anyone had since Rayburn. At times he was considered more influential than the President.
Newt Gingrich once said: "If we don't get him out of office, he could become of the most effective and powerful house leaders of history". Gingrich's words proved to be prophetic, and as he stretched to find a way to topple the powerful Jim Wright, brought the United States decades of rancor and conflict, which have made the U.S. Congress ineffective and of low credibility.
But let me tell you about the Jim Wright that I knew personally. One evening watching the election returns of George W.Bush vs Al Gore, Don Woodard, Jim Wright and I sat glued to the wide screen T.V. in my home, Jim said: "If they honestly count the vote in Florida, Gore will win. If Florida's votes are miscounted or rejected, George W.Bush will win."
Jim called that election right on the money. In our many times together, Jim Wright, Don Woodard and I, with our spouses enjoyed his insights and we had interesting and good times with "Speaker Jim". He was polite, witty, charming and especially charitable to those with different opinions. Wright was a consummate gentleman with old school manners. He could quote Shakespeare, the Bible, the Constitution, jokes and stories with great oratorical skill. He told me:
"I learned to speak, because I figured good ideas were worthless unless you could communicate them with excellence." It was a pleasure to hear Jim Wright speak. When he announced that he would be speaking in Congress, or anywhere else, there was never an empty seat.
In terms of "class", he had class. Many times over the years, in multiple meetings I never heard him say a disparaging word about Newt Gingrich, or the right wing activist crowd that launched a smear campaign to seize his position in D.C. . He didn't consider it ethical for an elected official to spend time slandering others. “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.”
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Jim was so loved by the pubic, not only in Texas, but throughout the USA. We went out to eat together from time to time and often Jim could not eat for people coming up, wanting to greet him, hug him or get his autograph. I recall events were people lined up to express their admiration to the extent that he never got to eat his meal.
He was well known around the world as well. My wife, born in Iran was amazed one night when we took Jim out and he told her stories about the Shah of Iran (his personal friend). Jim was considered a friend of most of the leaders of Latin America and his fluency in Spanish made him hugely effective. He once told me:
"President Reagan called upon me to help in negotiating with the leaders of South America. Reagan was in trouble because his 'Iran Contra' dealings blew up on him. His advisers told him to put me as the lead man to work to negotiate peace, thinking that if it failed, it would take attention away from Iran/Contra. So I negotiated what later became a peace agreement for the entire region. Since Texas was a border state, I worked to know and gain the respect of Latin American leaders. But then, after using my influence to get in the door with them, President Reagan would not even come to the peace table. So, I did it without him, and we actually got the opposing parties to negotiate."
President Reagan and his advisers were furious, but world leaders credited Jim Wright with the peace of Latin America that resulted. When it became obvious that the President really didn't want this peace agreement, Jim Wright's famous comment went around the world. "I think President Reagan and his bunch are scared that peace might break out in Latin America." It was another example of Jim Wright's genius in selecting words for powerful rhetorical impact.
When I organized and launched a new bank in Fort Worth, Jim Wright sent a representative from his office to tell me:
"Anything that Congressman Jim Wright can do, he wants you to know, he will always take your calls." People of Fort Worth learned that Jim Wright would listen to them, write letters for them, and contact them when they needed help. He was brilliant in communicating his answers to constituent requests over the years. Jim Wright knew that our bank would create jobs for the community and he always encouraged new job creation. It was said that Jim Wright had more positive influence on the economy of Fort Worth and Texas than anyone. Thousands of people enjoyed jobs, homes and successful businesses because of the Federal Contracts that he sent to Fort Worth. The projects of Federal investment and spending he sent to Fort Worth, are innumerable, and his successors never matched the effectiveness of Jim Wright. Fort Worth was constantly competing with Dallas, for new government contracts, grants and programs. We knew that "Dallas had the Hunts and the Perots, but Fort Worth had Jim Wright, and Fort Worth almost always got more than Dallas from Washington, DC."
President John F. Kennedy said of Jim Wright: "No city in America is better represented than Fort Worth, with Jim Wright in Congress."
When banking laws were changing and giant interstate banking organizations were gradually taking over the banking industry at the expense of local independent community banks, I sent an an analysis article to Jim Wright. It was published in D.C., circulated in Congress and Speaker Wright wrote:
"No single article, no single person has defined the situation of the banking industry, or the dangers of concentrations of power as well as Ben Boothe. His writings have impacted many in Congress. He told us that the 'Elected people on the banks of the Potomac, bought by the banks of Wall Street, have had huge harmful influence on the banks of Main Street' ".
Since then Jim Wright and I both noted that the giant banks such as Citi Bank had repeatedly been caught and fined by regulators. They just paid the fines and kept on abusing their customers. When Citi was judged to have conducted illegal activities, and unethical abuses of the banking system, they paid the $100,000,000 fine and then gave their President a $10,000,000 bonus. Jim asked me why, and I said: "Because they expected to be fined $200,000,000." He tried to help stop the trend of "Too Big To Fail" among the giant banks of Wall Street, but we both were right in predicting that they would abuse and harm the banking system. As big banks such as CitiBank continued to monopolize the industry and create economic chaos with policies such as 29% rates on credit cards, Jim Wright was astonished and angered at the sheer gall of CitiBank and others, for their actions, which caused people to suffer.
When I ran for U.S. Congress, Jim Wright endorsed me and spoke for me at many appearances. He was able to fill up the auditoriums with crowds of people from Fort Worth, who loved him and appreciated his service to the community. Later, when I went through personal times of stress, and challenges, freely my friend Jim Wright offered his kindness and advice.
The week after Jim Wright resigned his position in Washington, D.C., he came back to Fort Worth and about 100 business leaders took him to lunch at Pulido's Mexican Restaurant, near Vickery Street in West Fort Worth. We told him:
"Jim, we don't care what the Gingrich crowd did to you in D.C., we will back you, and see to it that you are re-elected."
Jim, humbly said, that he appreciated it, but that he would decline, thinking that his resignation would calm the partisan politics in Washington, and provide a beginning of a new, peaceful and productive U.S. Congress. He knew that the U.S. Congress had become far too partisan, and utterly destructive, to properly serve the American people. Later, it became clear, that the followers who wanted to get Jim Wright out of office, were far worse that Jim Wright. Gingrich had an unethical book deal, and an affair with his secretary while his wife was in a hospital dying of cancer. But, in spite of these scandals, the right wing warriors became more aggressive and destructive than ever, ignoring the historic cultural respect and damaging the ability for the Congress to accomplish things.
Ironically Gingrich used a few thousand dollars in book sales by Jim Wright the issue to try to get him out of office. Later, Gingrich had millions of dollars in unethical book deals going (that made Jim Wright's issues seem tiny by comparison) and Gingrich later left office under a cloud. Partisan divide under that crowd became so bad that the US Congress became gridlocked in conflict. When Jim and I discussed that a few months ago, he said: "My mistakes were small potatoes compared to what the other side did".
Jim Wright said: "I should not have left office. I thought that if I left, they would mend their ways. Washington is far worse now in partisan gridlock, and it represents powerful rich and forgets the American people", he told me. "I should have stayed. Perhaps I could have helped."
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram later reported that:
Jim Wright said that he "may have made a gross misjudgment" when he left Washington in 1989 amid an ethics investigation.
"Absolutely. I think I miscalculated," he said. "Maybe I was attributing to myself a greater influence than I had...that members would change their attitudes toward one another because of what I did."
The Fort Worth Democrat quit May 31, 1989, despite insisting he had broken no House rules when he was accused of using his wife's employment and royalties from one of his books to circumvent House limits on outside earnings. The total sum of money in question was small compared to what later Republicans did.
House Republicans had targeted him in a partisan punishment response in the weeks after Democrats in the Senate rejected former Sen. John Tower as then-newly elected President George H.W. Bush's choice for defense secretary. It was a first salvo that in later years became a pattern in Republican political attacks.
"It's useless. I can't go back and change it," Wright said.
But if he could, "I think I probably would not have retired. I think I would have seen it through and gone through the ignominy of having it heard and addressed."
Wright told House members in his resignation address that he hoped to see an end to when "vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate, when negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation, when members of both parties become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party."
His words seem to have almost been prophetic, considering the partisan acts of the Tea party of recent years in closing the government down and arbitrarily creating sequestration to cut government programs, whittle back on Medicare, try to find ways to cut Social Security, and cut back on funding for education.
"All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end," he said. "There has been enough of it."
Amen to you Speaker Jim Wright. We loved you and we will miss you. We can only hope that the American people will elect future men with the love for America and the political wisdom that you demonstrated.