DALLAS (AP) — Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, the longtime Texas Democrat who became the first House speaker in history to be driven out of office in midterm, has died at age 92.
The World War II veteran and author, often praised for his eloquence and oratorical skills, was living in a nursing home when he died early Wednesday morning, according to the Harveson and Cole funeral home in Fort Worth. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Wright represented a Fort Worth-area congressional district for 34 years, beginning with his election in 1954. He was the House’s Democratic majority leader for a decade, rising to the speakership in January 1987, to replace Tip O’Neill.
Although three House speakers had resigned before Wright stepped down in 1989, they all served during the 19th century — and none had been under fire for breaking House ethics rules.
The House Ethics Committee investigated Wright’s financial affairs for nearly a year at the prodding of a little-known Georgia congressman, Republican Newt Gingrich, who publicly branded Wright a “crook.” The bipartisan committee charged Wright with 69 violations of House rules on reporting of gifts, accepting gifts from people with an interest in legislation, and limits on outside income.
The committee accused Wright of scheming to evade limits on outside earnings by self-publishing a book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” he then sold in bulk. He was also accused of improperly accepting $145,000 in gifts over 10 years from a Fort Worth developer.
Wright said he hadn’t violated any House rules and vowed to fight the charges. But his support among fellow Democrats quickly eroded.
In a floor speech that ended with the announcement of his resignation on April 30, 1989, Wright called for an end to “mindless cannibalism” and decried what he called “this manic idea of a frenzy of feeding on other people’s reputation.” His detractors contended that Wright resisted acknowledging his ethically dubious actions.
The Wright episode proved to be a harbinger of the rising partisanship within the House and the personal attacks between House members that would mark the chamber for much of the last quarter-century. Critics said Wright helped fuel the ill will by generally ignoring Republicans as Democrats tended to House business.
House Republicans chose Gingrich as their whip just months before Wright’s resignation, and Gingrich later became speaker, beginning in 1995, until his own ethical lapses led to his departure.
James Claude Wright Jr. was born in Fort Worth on Dec. 22, 1922, the son of a professional boxer-turned-tailor. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he left college to enlist in the U.S. Army and flew combat missions in the South Pacific, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.
He served in the Texas House for one term, and at age 26 became mayor of Weatherford, his boyhood hometown. He served in that post for four years, from 1950 to 1954, before his first congressional victory.
Wright was a disciple of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a fellow Texan, and a confidant of another Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, who served in the Senate during Wright’s initial years in Congress before becoming vice president in 1961. Wright lost a special election to fill Johnson’s Senate seat.
“It was a very exciting political time when a young mayor from Weatherford arrived in Washington and began sitting at the feet of political giants like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and learning their trade,” Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and speaker of the Texas House, said Wednesday.
Wright also was in the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
“To describe the depth of sadness that engulfed us that day defies vocabulary,” he once said, recalling how the friendly mood of the Dallas crowds turned to “sheer terror and horror.”
In his long House career, Wright authored major legislation in several fields but was most proud of his efforts on behalf of a “pay-as-we-go” interstate highway system and water conservation.
He helped President Jimmy Carter fashion the 1978 Camp David agreement that led to peace between Israel and Egypt, and he played a pivotal role in bringing about a negotiated settlement in Central America that later led to the 1990 elections in Nicaragua in which the leftist Sandinista government lost. Like many Democrats, he had opposed President Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on military pressure to fight Marxism there.
On Wednesday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying Wright “was a person of deep courage, brilliant eloquence and complete mastery of the legislative process.” House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, praised the Texan for his “lifelong commitment” to public service.
In Texas, the 1979 Wright Amendment restricted direct commercial air travel from Love Field, near downtown Dallas, to nearby states. It was designed to foster growth at the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, but President George W. Bush signed legislation to repeal the amendment in 2006 and and loosen some flight restrictions.
After leaving Congress, Wright spoke around the country, particularly at universities, and was a consultant for a petroleum company. He taught a popular political science course at Texas Christian University for nearly 20 years.
In addition to writing a weekly column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a decade, he wrote several books. “Worth It All: My War for Peace” (1993) looked at the U.S.-Nicaraguan/Central America peace effort. In 1996, he wrote “Balance of Power: Presidents and Congress from the Era of McCarthy to the Age of Gingrich,” and in 2005 he revisited the war years in “The Flying Circus: Pacific War — 1943 — as Seen Through a Bombsight.”
In 1991, Wright lost part of his tongue to cancer. He had more surgery in 1999 to remove and reconstruct parts of his jawbone and tongue when the cancer returned.
Associated Press writer Douglass K. Daniel contributed to this report.
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