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The Fall of Jim Wright—and the House of Representatives

Those of us seeking to understand what has gone wrong with Congress are always on the lookout for characters who can be cast as villains in the institution’s history. Standard discussions (including McKay Coppins’s recent Atlantic story) often center on Newt Gingrich, and certainly this decade’s revelations about Dennis Hastert’s terrible past now make him a superlative heel. But for those who want to look across the aisle, Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-Tex., in Congress 1955-1989, Speaker 1986-1989) is sometimes singled out.

Understanding who Wright was and how he went wrong is thus of great importance for congressional institutionalists, and we now have a new biography to aid in the effort. J. Brooks Flippen’s Speaker Jim Wright methodically works its way through Wright’s youth in Weatherford, Texas, his service as a bombardier in World War II, his election in 1946, at age 24, to the Texas House of Representatives, his loss of that seat and subsequent business career and stint as Weatherford’s mayor, and from there into his 34-year-long career in the House of Representatives.

Flippen wants his readers to appreciate Wright’s many-sidedness. He was an ambitious man whose energy and discipline drove him to great political successes; a fairly liberal Texan; a fiscal conservative pork-barreler; a representative of his generation and its style of compromise-driven politics, who then became a Speaker whose win-at-any-cost attitude made his downfall inevitable. He convincingly argues that if we focus only on the corruption scandals that allowed his opponents to drive him from office in 1989, we will be unable to understand one of the major figures in 20th-century American politics. Indeed, he grandly closes: “To understand Jim Wright in all his complexity, with all his flaws and mistakes, all his strengths and triumphs, is to understand much of the American past and the politicians who guided it. The story of Jim Wright, whether a tragedy or triumph, is a story of America.”

Continue reading here.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership
Philip Wallach
Philip A. Wallach is a senior fellow of governance at the R Street Institute, where he researches America’s separation of powers with a focus on the r...