Meeting Jim Wright

by Matthew Green

Twelve years ago I wrote a letter to former Speaker Jim Wright, asking for an interview. I was a graduate student working on my dissertation about the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Barbara Sinclair had suggested that I talk to Wright.

Sinclair, a fearless interviewer, had plenty of experience talking with lawmakers. By contrast, I had done few interviews with political elites and none with a speaker, past or present. However, since I was planning on going to Texas to do archival research, I figured it was worth a try. So I sent the letter.

About a week later, my phone rang. “Hello,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “This is Jim Wright calling.”

I was taken aback. On the off chance I’d actually get a response, I assumed an assistant would contact me. Instead, Wright had called me himself.

We scheduled a date for me to visit him at Texas Christian University, where he taught and where his personal papers were stored. And, on the appointed day, I found myself nervously facing him in his TCU office, asking about his time as speaker and how he perceived the leadership role of the speakership.

Wright had aged considerably since he was in Congress, and his speech was somewhat slurred due to cancer surgery. But he was engaging and insightful and his memory was sharp. Wright’s humility and candor, which I had first glimpsed in his unexpected phone call, gradually put me at ease.

During the interview Wright provided some of the best quotes in my dissertation and subsequent book. He insisted that then-speaker Tip O’Neill had fought hard to defeat President Reagan’s 1981 budget bill, and that if O’Neill had covertly let it pass (as some believed) then O’Neill “left me out on a damn limb.” And Wright noted that a central duty of the speaker is to defend Congress, because “if he doesn’t do it, who’s going to?”

My interactions with the former speaker did not end with the interview. Wright invited me to lunch with Jim Riddlesperger and some other TCU colleagues. Later that day, as I was combing through Wright’s papers, he popped in to see if I had found what I was looking for. He even gave me a ride back to my hotel, pointing out features of the neighborhood along the way.

The cynical side of me wondered if he was being kind in the hopes I would write positive things about his speakership. But Wright was honest with me and spoke frankly about his mistakes as well as his successes. And I couldn’t help but be charmed by him. I started to understand how this charismatic man had managed to move up the House leadership ladder to become one of the country’s most powerful constitutional officers.

There have been a number of obituaries of Wright, the best in my opinion being David Hawkings’ piece in Roll Call. Many of them emphasize Wright’s missteps as speaker and how Newt Gingrich helped topple him from office. But that was only part of the man’s life and career, and few mention the personal qualities I observed: forthrightness, generosity, and intellectual curiosity.

Regardless, I’ll always be grateful to Jim Wright for sharing his time with me, teaching me about the speakership, and showing me how to live one’s twilight years with grace and purpose.

Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership (2010) and, most recently, Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives (2015).

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