Towering Texan, legendary statesman
Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was congressman for all the people.
Jim Wright is, for Fort Worth, the indispensable man. His political career spanned much more than half a century and touched the lives of everyone. In 1954, he challenged the incumbent member of the House of Representatives from Fort Worth, a four-term politician backed by nearly the entire city establishment. Wright won.
In a famous letter written to Amon Carter, editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and published in the newspaper, Wright promised: “I will be everyone’s congressman . . . not your personal, private congressman . . .but a congressman for all the people.”
Wright, who died May 6 at age 92, was the last of the three House Speakers from Texas in the 20th century.
Scholars point to Wright, who left Congress in 1989, as a congressional giant, and his impact was enormous. He was widely seen as the best orator of his time and was a great strategist. He came from far behind to defeat Californian Phillip Burton for the majority leader position in 1976, which set him on the path to become House Speaker in 1987 and placed him in the center of congressional power during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
During the first two years of his speakership, Wright was perhaps as powerful as any legislative leader had ever been. He was a tough and relentless negotiator with James Baker, former presidential chief of staff and secretary of state, who was on the opposite side of political issues. The two competitors often claimed victories against each other. Baker characterized Wright as a worthy political adversary, saying the congressman was a partisan leader, a darned good one, who was “as stubborn as a Brahma bull.”
As Wright rose to national, and even international, prominence, he never forgot his guiding principles, the ones he mentioned in his open letter to Carter in the local newspaper. The themes of Wright’s last speeches echoed the themes of his first ones. He believed in fairness, peace, fiscal responsibility and representing the folks back home.
Wright on public works
As a newly elected congressman, Wright was assigned to the Public Works Committee, where he was involved intimately in designing and passing the Interstate Highway Act. However, one of the best illustrations of Wright’s impact was the influence he had on water resources in Texas. He even wrote a book on the subject in 1966.
In 1949, the Trinity River flowed out of its banks, causing massive flood damage in Fort Worth. In the early 1950s, Texas went through a profound drought. Wright and other members of the Texas congressional delegation sponsored bills to build water reservoirs and levee systems to address flooding problems as well as plan for economic growth. How successful were they?
When Wright arrived in Washington in the 1950s, Tarrant County had a population of less than 400,000 people. Today, the county’s population is more than 1.8 million people.
Despite some water rationing issues, Tarrant County emerged from severe drought in 2015 with water reserves while having a population 4½ times what it had been in 1950. Although there were some flooding issues in the wettest May (2015) in the state’s history, water stayed overwhelmingly in the reservoirs and the levees. In other words, life is better in Fort Worth because of Wright’s work.
During his long political career, Wright was known for his hard work and intelligence and for being an innovator. He was the first member of Congress to rely heavily on computers in his office and to realize the potential of using the media both to communicate with constituents and to engage in public leadership of Congress.
Wright, who was re-elected 17 times, said that his highest calling was to bring home to his constituents the public services they deserved. He worked tirelessly for the defense industry that has been integral to Fort Worth’s economic vitality, and he pushed for the establishment of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth.
He ramrodded federal appropriations for the establishment of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. He had an impact as well on foreign policy, making the first address ever to a national television audience in the Soviet Union and working diligently for peace in Central America and in the Middle East. In Central America, he engaged in negotiations communicating with leaders in fluent Spanish.
Ending an era, beginning a new one
Wright resigned from Congress in 1989 over ethics charges regarding his selling a book of his writings, Reflections of a Public Man, and his business relationship with a Fort Worth investor. In today’s political world, the charges might be overlooked. His primary accuser, Newt Gingrich, admitted that the motivation for the charges was never about ethics, but about removing the Democrats from congressional power after nearly 60 years of uninterrupted control.
Wright hoped his departure would heal the partisan hostilities. His resignation speech was masterful, befitting his oratory ability and his love of the House. He admitted that he made mistakes, while vigorously denying any ethical wrongdoing. He hoped that his resignation could serve as good faith payment for ending the “mindless cannibalism” that had characterized the last few years. He stepped down with grace.
After serving in Congress for more than three decades, Wright could have stayed in Washington, as so many of members have, and made a fortune selling his influence as a political lobbyist. Or, he could have gone on the lecture circuit, making huge fees for speaking to corporate groups and displaying his famous oratory skills. Instead, Wright came home to Fort Worth.
The former congressman donated his papers to TCU and taught a popular course called “Congress and the Presidents.” Wright took groups of students to Washington, ran a simulation of congressional decision-making and gave students the difficult assignment of balancing the national budget.
Wright was a spirited partisan Democrat and loved to quote his mentor Sam Rayburn in saying: “Without prefix, without suffix, and without apology, I am a Democrat.” But the veteran politician never brought that partisan disposition into his classroom.
He was a devoted and beloved instructor, and a generation of TCU students — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike — found his class an integral part of their TCU experience.
For 14 years, the legendary statesman hosted the annual Jim Wright Symposium, which addressed crucial topics of our time and brought national leaders to campus to interact with TCU students, faculty and staff. In 2008, the Wright Symposium opened the new Brown-Lupton University Union with a standing-room-only speech by Charlie Wilson, the well-known Texas congressman featured in a Hollywood movie starring Tom Hanks.
The 2015 symposium, which was held just weeks before Wright’s death, was a tribute to Sam Rayburn on the 75th anniversary of Rayburn’s ascension to the speakership. Confined to a wheelchair, Wright’s resonant voice largely was gone and his body frail, but he was there. He wrote a tribute to Rayburn for the occasion despite his own failing health.
Wright had an indomitable spirit, surviving surgeries and other health challenges. He taught his university course into his late 80s. He had the ability to make anyone in conversation think of him as a great friend, and he was a great friend—offering his time freely and his wisdom without judgment. He loved quoting Abraham Lincoln, saying frequently that “the best way to defeat an enemy is to make him your friend.”
In the last year and a half, Wright received two awards. The first was the High Impact Legacy Award at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce for the 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s last visit to the city. The second was the Fort Worth Exchange Club’s “Golden Deeds Award.”
At the chamber breakfast, Wright summed up his career with gratitude, saying that if he lived to be 100 and spent every waking moment thanking those who had helped him along the way, he would still run out of time before he had thanked everyone. Gratitude indeed.
A congressman for all the people.
Jim Riddlesperger is a professor of political science at TCU. He co-edited The Wright Stuff: Reflections on People and Politics by Former House Speaker Jim Wright (TCU Press, 2013) and co-wrote Lone Star Leaders: Power and Personality in the Texas Congressional Delegation (TCU Press, 2011).
Jim Wright timeline
Dec. 22, 1922
James Claude Wright born He is the oldest of three children. His father is a self-made promoter and his mother has roots in England’s elite. Wright attends public schools in nine towns in Texas and Oklahoma.
1946 — 1954
First elected offices First elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1946, Wright serves one term. He loses his re-election bid but is soon elected mayor of Weatherford, and serves until 1954.
1954 — 1963
Congressional career Wright runs against incumbent Wingate Lewis for the Fort Worth-area congressional seat. Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon G. Carter backs Lewis. The day before the Democratic primary, Wright purchases a large ad in the newspaper saying, “You have at last met a man, Mr. Carter, who is not afraid of you. The people are tired of ‘One-man Rule.’ This is a New Day.”
Nov. 22, 1963
Wright and JFK Wright is part of the Dallas motorcade when President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Wright has been with Kennedy during his Fort Worth visit earlier that day.
Wright Elected majority leader Wright wins the election for House majority leader by one vote. Four years later, the conservative landslide that elected Ronald Reagan also ushers in a turbulent period for Wright. Conservative Democrats back their party’s position to help pass Reagan’s economic programs, and Wright is powerless to stop them.
1979 — 1987
“Wright Amendment” The so-called amendment restricts long-haul flights from Dallas Love Field. It is passed to protect the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which has been built by both cities.
January 6, 1987
Speaker of the House Wright becomes the 48th House Speaker, succeeding retiring Tip O’Neill. One of Wright’s biggest achievements is a bipartisan Central American peace plan that he forges with President George H.W. Bush, ending a decade of turbulence in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
May 31, 1989
Wright resigns After refuting all ethics charges in a yearlong investigation, Wright resigns as Speaker of the House. In a speech, he says: “Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown up among us. I don’t want to be a party to tearing up this institution. I love it.”
June 1989 — May 2014
Post politics Wright and his wife, Betty, return to Fort Worth as he selects TCU to house his collection of papers and personal library. Amassing nearly 4,000 cubic feet, the collection includes material from seven presidential administrations — from Eisenhower to Reagan. It becomes fertile ground for research in modern American history, government and politics. Later, Wright sets up an office in the Mary Couts Burnett Library and teaches a course on Congress and the Presidency. He also writes his last three books from the TCU campus.
2013 — 2015
Voting issues Wright draws national media attention when he is denied a voter ID card and fears he will not be able to vote. He also fears the new law, passed by a Republican-led state legislature, would have a significant impact on voter turnout.