Former U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright died May 6 in Fort Worth at age 92, having previously survived 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, two years as Speaker of the House of Representatives, a very lethal motorcade through the streets of Dallas, and one very irate phone call from me.
It was the early 1980’s. Jim Wright, a Democrat, was House Minority Leader, and Central America was on fire. The Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran, and giving at least some of the proceeds, illegally, to its darlings, its “freedom fighters,” the Contras fighting to topple the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan gravely warned us that Nicaragua was but a two-day drive from Harlingen, Texas – if you don’t take too many bathroom breaks.
I was living in Austin, Texas, and watching the news when Jim Wright came on the television and said something about Nicaragua that really got under my skin. I no longer remember what he said, but it was enough to spur me to grab the phone and call the capitol switchboard.
The other end: “House of Representatives, may I help you?”
Me (in my gruffest voice): “Jim Wright!”
The other end: “Just a moment, please.”
The other end: “Representative Wright’s office, may I help you?”
Me (still gruff): “Jim Wright!”
The other end: “Just a moment, please.”
The other end: “Hello?”
Me: “Is this Jim Wright?”
The other end: “Yes, it is.”
Me: “Mr. Wright, this is Lawrence Reichard from Austin, and…” And I proceeded to read the riot act to the sitting House Minority Leader. After a while he interrupted me.
Jim Wright: “Excuse me, who did you say you are?”
Me: “I’m Lawrence Reichard from Austin, and…” And I read him some more of the riot act. And after a while he interrupted me again.
Jim Wright: “Excuse me, do I know you?”
Me: “No, but…” And some more riot act. And again he interrupted me.
Jim Wright: “I think I’m gonna hang up now.” Click.
Jim Wright was a decent enough sort. Not every House Minority Leader will take my phone calls. He helped broker a deal that had the U.S. stop aiding the Contras in exchange for the Nicaraguan government agreeing to a ceasefire with the Contras – which is kind of like my saying I’ll agree to stop defending myself if you agree to stop attacking me. It was a way for the Reagan administration to save face amid the utter ruin and failure of its Contra War policy, which was popular neither here nor in Nicaragua. Put it this way, Reagan had much better luck in Grenada, where all four branches of the U.S. military, working diligently together, successfully trounced some 14 Cuban construction workers in just a few short days. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan, unlike our last two presidents, the man knew when to pick up his marbles and go home. In Beirut he had the wisdom to withdraw after a bombing killed 241 U.S. servicemen in their barracks.
Jim Wright was an interesting man. On November 22, 1963, he was riding in President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas when JFK was assassinated by someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald. And in an extremely unusual move for a Speaker of the House, he essentially conducted foreign policy by personally negotiating with a foreign government – the Nicaraguan government, over the U.S. proxy war against Nicaragua. Wright ended up resigning as Speaker, and later from the House altogether, because of scandals that today would make one blush for their modest scope. Michael Parenti, prominent critic of our current national security state, believes Wright was forced to resign because he was probing too deeply into CIA covert action in Central America. If true, that’s the last time we’ve seen that much courage emanating from Congress – or anywhere in Washington.
Leading the House GOP charge against Wright was none other than then-Congressman and current political talking head Newt Gingrich, who later resigned his own post as Speaker of the House under his own cloud of ethics violations. Some trace the dissolution of civil Washington discourse and politics, and the rise of GOP viciousness and obstructionism, to the dismantling of Jim Wright and the rise of Newt Gingrich.
And last but not least, Jim Wright became an unwitting poster child for all that is wrong with Voter ID bills and laws when, at the age of 89, having served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and two years as Speaker of the House, Wright was not allowed to vote in the 2012 election because he didn’t have ID.
Goodbye, Jim. Take care. And don’t worry, you won’t see Newt Gingrich where you’re going.
Lawrence Reichard is an underemployed freelance editor and writer currently residing in Belfast, Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.