Barbarously Large and Final
Speaker Jim Wright: Power, Scandal, and the Birth of Modern Politics
by J. Brooks Flippen
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018.
527 pages, $35 cloth.
It’s easy to forget Texas was once a wellspring of the Democratic Party. For much of the twentieth century, you couldn’t build a liberal coalition in American politics without a Texas Democrat near the center. In a nearly unbroken line from 1940 to 1989, for example, the title of Speaker of the House was held by a congressman from either Texas or Massachusetts. Historians have dubbed this arrangement the “Austin–Boston axis,” and attributed it to Texas’s advantageous position when Democrats were still a viable party beyond the coasts. With a voting public split between the liberal west and the conservative south, Texas Democrats functioned as a bridge between the opposing wings. Over time, however, as the conservative side increasingly defected to the GOP, the Democratic Party’s power in Texas declined and diminished.
Arguably, the last Texas Democrat of national consequence was Congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth. Although his tenure as Speaker was brief, lasting only from 1987 to 1989, Wright had a long and storied career as a rank-and-file congressman, entering the House in 1955 and serving under eight presidents. Even so, today Wright is primarily remembered for his dramatic resignation speech in 1989. Embroiled in an ethics investigation launched by an aggressive young representative from Georgia named Newt Gingrich, Wright took to the podium to decry the “mindless cannibalism” and “self-appointed vigilantes” who were coarsening American politics. Then, in a turn of high-flown oratory for which he was renowned, Wright announced that he was “giv[ing] you back this job you gave me as propitiation for all this season of bad will that has grown up among us. . .. I will resign as Speaker of the House.” Wright’s departure, it would later prove, effectively closed the curtains on the Austin-Boston axis.
Yet it does Wright a disservice to remember him exclusively for his ignominious exit, according to historian J. Brook Flippen’s new biography, Speaker Jim Wright: Power, Scandal, and the Birth of Modern Politics. In his engaging treatment of Wright’s life and career, Flippen seeks to rehabilitate the congressman’s legacy, arguing in his introduction that “there is so much more to the story of James C. Wright than scandal.” As Flippen has it, “the story of Jim Wright, whether a tragedy or triumph, is the story of America.” This might be overstating things a bit, but it’s fair to say that the story of Jim Wright is at least a story of Texas, and an important one.
Flippen makes a convincing case that Wright deserves a place in the ranks of Texas political giants. Entering the House the same year that fellow Texan Sam Rayburn reclaimed the title of Speaker and Lyndon Johnson ascended to his role as “Master of the Senate,” Wright was given a plum assignment on the Public Works Committee—an assignment he would maintain for the next twenty-two years. From Public Works, Wright helped accelerate Fort Worth’s emergence as a major urban center. Wright played a crucial role in the development of the Trinity River watershed, the resurrection of the Fort Worth stockyards, and the creation of DFW Airport. He even lent his name to the infamous “Wright Amendment,” which limited air traffic out of Dallas’s Love Field in a bid to protect DFW from competition.
While Flippen makes a convincing case for Wright’s regional significance, the book’s claim to larger consequence —encompassing the “birth of modern politics”—might benefit from devoting less time to Wright’s early career. Any political biography suffers in comparison with Robert Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson, yet one wishes Flippen had borrowed a few narrative tricks from Caro’s arsenal. One of Caro’s greatest strengths is his ability to pick out discreet episodes from the morass of congressional history and shape them into compelling narrative arcs. To accomplish this, Caro often dips forward and backward in time, filling in his canvas as needed with digressions into Senatorial procedure, regional politics, or global history. Flippen, however, narrates Wright’s shifting positions on various issues in strict chronological order, with little recourse to the outside world. Many passages read as follows:
The bills kept coming, and Wright dutifully obliged. He voted for the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, which expanded funds for public housing, and for the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban development. More to Wright’s heart, however, was his support for the Clean Water Act of 1965, which provided for stronger federal oversight and required states to develop water quality standards for all navigable interstate waters. . . . When he was appointed the chairman of a subcommittee on watershed development, Wright’s emphasis remained more on ensuring clean water for consumption than on maintaining natural water ecologies.
While it’s certainly relevant to know where Wright stood on important issues of his time, Flippen’s steadfastly chronological approach is a challenge to the reader’s attention span. The difficulty is that Wright remained a rank-and-file congressman until his ascension to majority leader in 1977, over twenty years into his career. This means that the first half of Speaker Jim Wright is largely devoted to tracking policy positions from a time when Wright’s vote was only one among hundreds of other members of the House. While methodologically sound for an academic biography, this can make for dry reading.
Such quibbles aside, the book picks up steam in the second half when Wright is named majority leader (second in the House hierarchy behind Speaker) and begins exercising more influence over national policy. Some of the more intriguing episodes from Wright’s latter years include his attempt to negotiate a peace between the Contras and Sandinistas in the midst of the Iran-Contra affair, his mistimed interventions on behalf of “high-flying” Savings & Loan institutions in the run-up to the S&L collapse, and of course his eventual downfall at the hands of Gingrich, which Flippen portrays as a minor scandal resulting from lax vigilance rather than evidence of a larger history of corruption.
Nearly thirty years have passed since Wright’s dramatic resignation. If Beto O’Rourke’s performance in the 2018 Senate race is any accurate harbinger, the Democratic Party in Texas may be regenerating. Whatever Beto’s ultimate fate as a national figure, demographics suggest it’s only a matter of time until Texas is once again a battleground state. Might this portend a revival of the “Austin–Boston axis” that dominated American politics for so long? Anyone looking to understand the pressures a Texas power broker will face in such a future would do well to study the life of Congressman Jim Wright.
Rob Madole is a graduate student at Texas State University.