Wright as Speaker: Tough Tactician, Center Course

Times Staff Writer

Taking over the job that Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts made one of the last bastions of old-style liberalism, incoming House Speaker Jim Wright is expected to be more centrist in philosophy but more aggressive in tactics, providing a potentially dramatic change in leadership for Congress and the Democratic Party in the waning years of the Reagan presidency.

With both houses of Congress now in their control and the Republican Administration shaken by a foreign policy scandal, Democrats are hoping that Wright’s assertive style will help them capitalize on their new strength and hasten the adjustment to post-New Deal and post-Reagan politics.

A one-time mayor of Weatherford, Tex., who has spent 32 years in the House, the 63-year-old Wright is all but a sure bet to win the top post of Speaker. No one has opposed him for today’s official nomination by the House Democratic Caucus, and that makes his election by the full House in January a virtual certainty.


Wright’s ascension, said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), represents “a natural progression of where the party wants to go. You’re going to see a more activist House.”

Said another Democrat: “Though I love Tip, I think we were ready to move on.”

But Wright, an enigmatic loner whose manner contrasts sharply with O'Neill’s exuberant, personal approach to politics, also brings to the job some traits that are causing concern.

Veers From Left to Right

Some Democrats note that his stand on many issues has veered from left to right over the years. Others point to his hair-trigger temper, which twice has brought the former Golden Gloves boxer to the verge of fistfights in the House chamber. Still others worry that Wright, who admits that impatience is “one of my problems,” will rush too quickly ahead on issues without checking to be sure he has enough votes behind him.

And while his flowery, often evangelical oratory plays well in the House chamber, some Republicans jeer that Wright comes across to the public as a “snake oil salesman.” His bushy eyebrows and stiff smile may invite the same sort of caricature that dogged the lumbering, white-haired O'Neill.

But Democrats contend that Wright’s inability to project the earnest style that made O'Neill such an effective media figure will prove less important as a new crop of presidential contenders take over the burden of shaping the party’s image.

More important for Wright will be producing clear policies from the House’s cacophony of regional and ideological interests--a task for which he seems well suited, his backers say. Wright will “be more of an orchestra leader, trying to get the instruments playing from the same sheet of music,” Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) said.

‘Consolidation of Authority’

Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who will replace Wright in the No. 2 slot of majority leader, predicted “more concentration and consolidation of authority under Jim Wright.” By contrast, when it came to shaping legislation, O'Neill generally deferred to his committee chairmen.

This fall’s huge package of anti-drug legislation could be a model of how Wright would operate as Speaker. With O'Neill’s backing, Wright ordered up bills from more than a dozen House committees, set strict deadlines and shepherded the giant, combined package through to House passage with amazing speed.

The feat allowed the House to beat President Reagan to the punch on a hot political issue. And in the process, Wright neutralized the badly outnumbered GOP minority by allowing votes on some particularly hard-line amendments they wanted.

The drug bill “was a positive sign” for Wright’s tenure as Speaker, Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said. “ . . . Republicans stand a better chance of getting a better hearing of their side.”

That endorsement says a lot, considering that Lungren last year almost came to blows with Wright in a confrontation over whether the majority leader unfairly denied Republicans a vote on an amendment they wanted.

Offers Apology

Wright, who later apologized to Lungren, acknowledged: “I guess I have at times had a kind of a quick temper that is associated with Irish people and with red-headed people, but I don’t stay mad. I get over it real quick.” (Years earlier, he had also challenged Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland) to a fight, reportedly after Stark twice called him an obscene name. That time, Stark apologized.)

However, most of Wright’s clashes as Speaker may come with the President.

Although Wright said he wants “a good, friendly working relationship” with Reagan, he recently lambasted the President over the Administration’s sale of U.S. arms to Iran and the diversion of some proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras.

Reagan “can just utterly reject factual information which doesn’t fit comfortably with his preconceived predilections,” Wright told reporters.

Moreover, Wright’s domestic priorities reflect a basic New Deal Populism that has become somewhat outmoded in the Reagan era, where federal programs are viewed as an intrusion into people’s lives.

After assuming his new post, Wright hopes to move forward on trade legislation, which Reagan has opposed, and a water quality bill that Reagan vetoed last session.

Stresses Deficit Issue

What seems to bother Wright the most is the federal deficit, which has ballooned to more than $200 billion a year. As the most senior member of the House Budget Committee, Wright has often insisted that a tax increase is necessary to reduce the red ink. However, he refuses to say whether he will lead the way for higher taxes, particularly in the face of a promised Reagan veto and opposition from Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

“When the time comes for somebody to stand up, I think he’ll do it,” says Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a member of the budget panel. “But he won’t be so far in front that there won’t be enough followers.”

Wright also hopes to shepherd public works projects that he said have been “deferred for too long.”

“Jim Wright believes government can and should have a positive function in dealing with the problems facing this country,” Rep. Foley said.

Wright traces his philosophy to the Great Depression, when he saw his once-proud grandfather--who “lit cigars with $5 bills in the saloons of Weatherford"--reduced to hopelessness by the loss of his job.

“Each morning, he would get up and grab the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, eagerly read the want ads, light out on foot, going to apply in person, but there weren’t any jobs for somebody 63 years old in 1932,” Wright recalls. “And I’d see him come back in the evening, almost visibly shrunken in stature, hope drained out of him.

“It was a tough, tough experience,” he says. “There wasn’t any such thing as Social Security. There was no such thing as unemployment compensation.”

Assails Spending Cuts

Wright decries the social spending cutbacks made during the last six years as “a historic retrogression in a very fundamental American dream.”

Despite that sentiment, Wright’s record on the issues throughout his political career has been a shifting one, a fact that some critics say reflects a weakness in ideological fortitude, but which has helped make him a political survivor.

When Wright rushed into politics in the late 1940s, he was a left-wing firebrand. In his one term in the Texas Legislature, he unsuccessfully pushed an anti-lynching measure and a bill that would ban the poll tax that kept many blacks away from the voting booth.

But when it became clear that his liberalism was about to cost him his office, he jumped back into the mainstream, declaring in one speech that he stood behind “the Southern tradition of segregation and have strongly resisted any and all efforts to destroy it.”

He lost anyway, and the experience taught him a lesson in political survival that he carried home to Weatherford.

As an 11-term House member, Wright moved to the left after taking advantage of animosity against the two leading candidates, Richard Bolling of Missouri and Phil Burton of California, to win a surprise victory as majority leader in 1976.

To quiet fears that he might be too parochial, he supported federal bailouts for New York City and Chrysler Corp. At the same time, he did favors wherever he could--not the least of which was establishing a political action committee that could distribute hefty campaign contributions to his fellow Democrats.

In recent years, as Wright has emerged as a national Democratic leader, his voting record has put him near the center of his party.

Backs ‘Star Wars’

He has been relatively conservative on foreign policy and defense issues--supporting the Vietnam War and the MX missile much longer than most of his fellow Democrats, for example--and last year strongly endorsed the President’s controversial space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars.”

But he has been willing to make adjustments when hometown interests are involved. Last year, against the bipartisan tide, he opposed tax-overhaul legislation that curtailed many tax breaks dear to Texas’ energy industry.

And while threats to education, housing and welfare programs were taking shape at the outset of Reagan’s first term, critics say, Wright seemed preoccupied instead with saving the Synthetic Fuels Corp., important to oil interests.

“Wright talks a very good game, and I hope he plays it, but you look at the record, and you wonder,” said former Rep. Bolling of Missouri.

While some critics have misgivings about Wright’s record, some of his most avid backers are more worried that, in his zeal to achieve results as Speaker, he may tend to move ahead prematurely, declining outside advice and failing to consider the chances of success.

On the surface, Wright is cordial, even a backslapper. But the outward friendliness belies an intensely private man. Those who work with him say he has a strong and sometimes infuriating instinct to keep only his own counsel--a marked change from O'Neill’s inclinations to carefully build a consensus before proceeding on important issues.

‘Drove Me Half Crazy’

Playwright Larry L. King, who worked for Wright several years in the early 1960s, remembers that he “drove me half crazy, because Jim is not a delegater.” Even on such a routine matter as a standard response to a constituent, Wright would come through and “take a three-paragraph letter and turn it into a 22-paragraph letter,” King says.

Craig Raupe, a longtime associate of Wright’s, worries that in handling the greater burden of Speaker, Wright “needs to delegate more, because you’re not drawing on enough heads when you don’t.”

“He’s going to stub his toe a few times,” says one Democratic congressman, who asked not to be identified.

But others say such drive is preferable to the gridlock that has often trapped the House in the past. “All of us are trying to redefine, to re-examine issues of opportunity in a society that has changed,” says Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.). “He has the . . . feeling that the House should speak its mind.”