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A Look Back: Jim Wright’s Resignation Scandal

Bear with me for every bit of this is stranger than fiction.  In 1973 a young man named John Paul Mack was clerking in a small retail store in Fairfax County, Virginia.  A young lady customer named Pamela Small came in looking for something. Not finding what she wanted, Mack told her to look in a back room. There is no indication of prior acquaintance. Mack followed her into the back room, savagely hammered and stabbed her half-dead, and threw her into her car. He drove her around, brought her back, and left her in her car behind the store. He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a long term in a state pen but he served much less time in the local Fairfax County jail. Ms. Small survived after a year of surgery. Well, you say, terrible story, but so what?

On the front page of the May 4, 1989 “Washington Post” was a story by Ms. Small relating the above and much more. As I read it, I realized this was explosive material guaranteeing repercussions. That evening my neighbor told me there had been a female volcano that day between K Street and Capitol Hill registering about 10 on the Richter Scale. Spreading like a prairie fire the story was reprinted across the country the next day with the “New York Times” stating it “had landed like a bomb.”

Ms. Small by now was a business woman who had occasional business on Capitol Hill. Until recently she had no idea what had become of John Paul Mack. When she found out, she decided to go public since there was a chance she might run into him. And so who was John Paul Mack? Mack’s brother was married to Texas Democratic Congressman Jim Wright’s daughter. Jim Wright intervened to get Mack into a local jail for a shorter stretch, easy duty, and early release. There was some rationalization about Mack being stressed out over a failing marriage or some such nonsense. Story over? Not yet.

When Mack got out of jail, Wright hired him on his staff. Eventually Wright became Speaker of the House with Mack his chief of staff – the most powerful unelected person on Capitol Hill setting the Speaker’s agenda and making the same salary as the CIA director. After May 4 Colorado Senator Pat Schroeder led the protest charge up Capitol Hill ably assisted by “Washington Post” columnist Mary McGrory and many more women screaming for Mack’s head on a pike pole and throw in Wright’s for good measure. Many  congresswomen broke off contact with the Speaker’s office until Mack was gone. A few days later Mack resigned, a few weeks more and Wright did likewise. As seen in the newspapers, for about a month Washington was as absorbed with Mackgate as it had been with Watergate.

A number of Congressional Democrats including Tip O’Neil and Tony Coelho came to Mack’s defense saying he had paid his debt to society and owed nothing to Small.  Shortly Coelho was thrown under the resignation bus also. It turned out Mack and Coelho were partners in business. That’s the story of three resignations resulting from one “Washington Post” article.

One biography of Wright simply glossed over this story as if it had never happened. When he died in May 2015 no mention of the above was made in Wright’s obituaries in either the “Washington Post” or the “Washington Times.” On May 14, 1989, ten days after the original story, the “Washington Post” published an article stating that the Pamela Small story had been ignored or suppressed for too long by a press establishment that “had not even dimly perceived” the power of her story even though it had been inside knowledge for at least two years. Yes, truth trumps fiction every time.

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