Get it Wright

Get it Wright

He sits in his office, fiddling with a metallic coaster bearing the congressional seal. A painting of a rural Parker County church surrounded by bluebonnets on a rainy day hangs above his giant, cluttered desk. It once hung above the same desk in his Washington office to remind him of Texas. Now it hangs in his Texas office and reminds him of a day when Jim Wright was one of the most powerful men in the nation’s Capitol.His office, a replica of one he once occupied on Capitol Hill, is tucked away in an alcove of the Mary Couts Burnett Library behind an assortment of statues, photographs and newspaper clippings in a collection bearing his name.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have things break the way they have,” the 84-year-old, white-haired former congressman said.

The once-great orator now speaks with a slur from a bout with cancer that cost him part of his tongue and jaw.

He teaches an entry-level political science course at TCU, hoping to instill the values he says were violated by those who contributed to his political downfall 16 years ago. But despite the professorship he now occupies, he never earned an undergraduate degree.

And it all began with a knee injury – the injury that kept him away from the football field for the first time.

His football coach nudged him toward the debate team, saying Wright was one of the school’s best prospects, and thus began an interest that one day would lead Wright to Washington, D.C.

“He’d found something that I could do equally as well or better, and he wanted me to do it,” Wright said. His mother, an English literature teacher, couldn’t have been happier that Wright was giving up football.

By the end of his junior year, a history class peaked his interest in another subject – World War I – in which his farther had served.

“I got to thinking that one thing that I could do that would do more good than being a good football coach would be to go to Congress and support something that helps create world peace,” he said. “So right there, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life, but I couldn’t just go hang up my shingles and say I was a congressman.”

He started studying politics, government, economics, history and read books about the presidency.

He finished two years at Weatherford College, a junior college, and went on to the University of Texas.

He completed two semesters there, and, after Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist.

Twenty-four days later he was sworn into the U.S. Air Force and pulled to the South Pacific, where he flew B-24 bombers during World War II.

When he returned, he was married to his first wife, Mab, and had a son, James C. Wright III.

“When I came back, I knew what I wanted to do,” Wright said.

That’s when he began his political career.

He held a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, was mayor of Weatherford and eventually ran for the U.S. House of Representatives at age 31 and won, beginning a 35-year career on Capitol Hill.

His ascent would end at the highest position in the House, the speaker’s chair, where he succeeded fellow Democrat Thomas “Tip” O’Neill.

Betty Wright, his second wife who he refers to as “the pride of my life,” recalls her husband’s fame.

“We could go to New York or anywhere and walk down the street and people would stop us, and they still do,” she said.

Wright traveled all over the world seeking peace, whether it was in the Middle East, South America or the Soviet Union.

He hopes someday he’ll be known for these efforts.

“Those are the things I dearly enjoyed participating in, making peace, and I would like to have some thought of being remembered as a peace maker,” he said.

Most, however, know Wright for his descent from power. And if the ascent from Mr. Wright to Mr. Speaker was fast, the descent was even faster.

The former speaker’s signature bushy eyebrows lower at the mention of the events that led to his resignation.

“Horrible,” is the first word that comes to his wife’s mind.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve gone through in my life,” Betty Wright said. “But that was his life, and that’s what he aspired to be, and he got there, and it turned on him.”

He was accused of ethical misconduct by then-rising star Newt Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society and other House Republicans.

“He was asking that this be investigated and that be investigated and so on,” Wright said. “I said, ‘All right, let’s investigate whatever you think I did, set up an investigation.’ I thought it would take a few weeks to look into – they were foolish things.”

A few weeks turned into three years.

“Every morning in the Star-Telegram and in The Washington Post, there would be big articles on whatever they said he had done,” Betty Wright said. “All these things that were going around in the paper; I’d say hardly any of them were true. It was all switched to their liking.

“It just wasn’t right,” she said.

Digging up dirt on Wright became a full-time job for some, he said. His old opponents and people in his hometown began to get phone calls from opposing legislators’ offices looking for information that could be used against him, he said.

“To me it was intolerable,” Wright said. “I did not go up there to participate in this kind of a contest. I didn’t want any part of that.”

“I thought I was doing an injustice to the Congress by even allowing that to occupy the time and attention of the news media and the voters,” he said.

Betty Wright said once the accusations began, it was an endless cycle.

“You’ve got to go on, and they’re accusing him of something else and something else and something else and you’re trying to keep up with all that,” she said.

He stepped down from the speaker’s chair on May 31, 1989. Six days later, the Democratic caucus selected a replacement, officially ending his term as speaker. At the end of June, 1989, he resigned from Congress.

“It was my reputation, and I’d rather have that more than this or any other job, and so I resigned, retired, left,” he said. “I got some things done as my first year as speaker, but I was not willing to sacrifice the initiative of proposing things for America just so they could take a back seat to these damn personal charges and it was just not tolerable.”

Wright regrets walking away from Capitol Hill to this day, but said he’s been happy ever since.

“I believed at the time that it would so shock and shame everybody in the Congress and that it would go back to being the way it was,” he said. “I guess I was wrong. I guess I just miscalculated the strength of my own popularity in Congress.”

He soon began a speaking tour on college campuses and said he enjoyed answering questions from students more than he enjoyed answering questions from the press in Washington.

After a stint in the private sector, he found that joy again when he began teaching at TCU.

He paints occasionally and enjoys sports, his family and gardening with his wife. They still have regular weekend dates to the movies and he dines almost weekly with friends around a big round table at the Green Oaks Hotel.

“I thought Jim would stop and smell the roses and kind of retire somewhat, but he didn’t. He just kept on going,” Betty Wright said.

Jim Riddlesperger, a professor in the political science department, said Wright has more energy than most 84-year-olds he knows.

“Keeping up with him is a difficult thing,” Riddlesperger said.

Wright said the students he teaches keep him young.

“If I was confined to associating with people only my age, I probably would just deteriorate more rapidly,” he said.

He hopes the principles he passes onto them make them leaders for future generations.

“I hope to plant some good thoughts and purposes in the minds of these students as they pursue their dreams and go expand their knowledge and ambitions,” he said. “You say the things you think are important, and you hope that it makes an impression.”

Neal Jackson, a senior neuroscience major, said Wright often emphasized the importance of mutual respect in anecdotes, but it was his powerful orations that truly made him unique.

“It’s not only the experiences but his ability to articulate them,” Jackson said. “That’s the magic of Jim Wright.”

Even though Wright doesn’t have a doctorate like most professors, Jackson said his anecdotes make a lasting impression.

“His dissertation was 40 years, and it was his life,” Jackson said. “The guy lived and breathed politics for his whole life.”

Riddlesperger said most professors study what they teach, they don’t practice it – and that’s what makes Wright unique.

Wright, though, insists that what makes him unique is his passion for what he teaches.

“I’ve always had the feeling that students get a great deal more out of any class if they can approach it not like a bowl of medicine but like a big ol’ bowl of ice cream,” he said.