Wright Resigns, Urges End to This 'Mindless Cannibalism' : Speaker Declares Innocence in Impassioned House Speech

Times Staff Writer

Still protesting his innocence while beseeching Congress to "bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end," Jim Wright (D-Tex.) announced Wednesday that he would resign from the House and become the first Speaker in history to be forced out of office.

With tears filling his eyes, the Texas Democrat told his colleagues in a powerful, hourlong speech from the well of the chamber that it had become apparent Congress would not be able to turn fully to the nation's problems before it until the long ethics investigation of his finances is resolved.

"Well, I'll tell you what," Wright said near the end of an oration that had held members in rapt silence. "Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown up among us. Give it back to you.

". . . I don't want to be a party to tearing up this institution--I love it."

Taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes, Wright said in a choked-up voice: "You need--you need somebody else."

Wright's dramatic abdication, anticipated for the last week, apparently ends a yearlong Ethics Committee inquiry that had produced 69 charges of rules violations against the Speaker and clears the way for the election of Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) to the Speaker's post next Tuesday.

It caps an extraordinary period of less than a week in which another top House Democrat, Rep. Tony Coelho of Merced, has resigned as majority whip over questions about his finances; reports about an FBI investigation of the Democratic caucus leader have surfaced and allegations and rumors about other members have swept through Congress.

Amid indications that partisans now are primed for an open bloodletting to avenge scores on both sides, the Speaker, a 34-year veteran of the House, appealed for an end to the wave of ethics attacks with his departure.

"In God's name, that's not what this institution is supposed to be all about," he declared.

"When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication, harsh personal attacks upon one another's motives and one another's character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate on important issues . . . . Surely that's unworthy of our institution, unworthy of our American political process," he said.

At the conclusion of the address, in which at times he roared with fury and at others whispered in a voice barely audible, the chamber erupted into a lengthy standing ovation.

While some Democrats lavished praise on him and expressed sympathy for his predicament, most clearly had been impatient for him to step down.

The elevation of the more conciliatory Foley--with his unsmirched reputation and wide popularity among Republicans as well as members of his own party--would be a relief from the controversies swirling around Wright.

Caucus to Select Successor

Wright said that he would serve as Speaker until the Democratic caucus chooses his successor at a session Tuesday. He said that he would resign his House seat representing a Ft. Worth district by the end of June.

Since the ethics panel investigating his affairs cannot proceed against a former member, his move means that the charges now pending against him will become moot. Had he chosen to continue his fight against the charges, a bitter showdown on the House floor would have been virtually inevitable.

In London, President Bush broke his silence on the Speaker's case by issuing a brief statement recalling their years of friendship.

"In spite of the present situation, I believe the Wright tenure was one of effectiveness and dedication to the Congress of the United States," the President said. "And I recognize his distinguished service to the people of his congressional district. Barbara and I wish Jim and Betty well in whatever lies ahead."

The Speaker, widely credited with helping end the fighting in Nicaragua by pushing for a cutoff in military aid to the anti-Communist rebels, said that his two years and five months as presiding officer of the House was one of the most productive in recent history.

In the end, Wright agreed with most of his fellow Democrats by concluding that he no longer could lead effectively on important legislation because of the attention focused on what he called his "petty personal finances."

The ethics panel's decision by a 12-0 vote to issue a "statement of alleged violations" against Wright last April 17 started the erosion of his standing that had accelerated in recent weeks. He was accused of accepting improper gifts from a Ft. Worth business partner who had interest in legislation and of scheming to evade House limits on outside income through bulk sales of his 1986 book, "Reflections of a Public Man."

In addition, the ethics panel was reported to be ready to vote on whether to pursue additional charges against him. A disclosure that his top aide, John R. Mack, had been convicted of a vicious hammer-and-knife attack on a young woman in 1972, also provoked criticism. Mack has since resigned his post.

Many members had concluded privately that the ethics inquiry eventually would lead to a House reprimand.

Dressed in funereal black, Wright, 66, began his speech by rebutting the charges against him in detail for 55 minutes.

With his wife, Betty, watching from the gallery, Wright angrily rejected the ethics panel's allegations that $72,000 in salary she received from an investment company he co-owned, along with use of an apartment and a car, were illegal gifts, rather than income for work performed. Railing furiously against that conclusion, he declared that she had researched projects, studied stocks and visited drilling sites to guide the firm's investments.

Waving a copy of his book in the air, he also insisted that about $57,000 in royalties from the volume were exempt from House limits on earned income and not, as the committee alleged, a scheme to evade the ceiling on speaking fees.

While acknowledging that he may have offended Republicans by being too partisan and that he did many things that he now would do differently, he said that he had broken no rules as he understood them.

"Have I contributed unwittingly to this manic idea of feeding on other people's reputations?" Wright asked. "Have I caused a lot of this? So maybe I have; God, I hope I haven't, but maybe I have.

"Have I been too partisan, too insistent, too abrasive, too determined to have my way? Perhaps. Maybe so. If I have offended anybody, any other party, I'm sorry. I never meant to. Would not have done so intentionally."

Alluding to Friday's decision by Coelho to resign in mid-June and the airing of charges against other Democrats as well, Wright declared firmly:

"All of us in both parties must bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end--there's been enough of it."

Personal "vendettas" by "self-appointed vigilantes" in each party will cause lasting damage, he warned. "Let that (his resignation) be a total payment for the anger and hostility we feel toward each other."

Democrats rose spontaneously in applause and, gradually, Republicans joined, including House GOP Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the first member to file charges against Wright, who had predicted repeatedly that he would be gone by the month of June.

Embraced by Colleagues

As he walked away from the lectern, his eyes red-rimmed, Wright was embraced by many of his Democratic colleagues, including a few who had been privately suggesting that he resign to avoid further political damage to the party and to the House.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), who came to hear the speech, made a point of shaking the Speaker's hand. And crusty Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), speaking for the Texas delegation, declared: "There's an evil wind blowing in the halls of Congress that's reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition . . . . Conviction without trial is a new and dangerous rule. It can destroy Congress."

History, Brooks said, would commend Jim Wright as "a good man and a great Speaker." But history also would record that he was the first to hold the office--third in line for the presidency--who ever quit in mid-term for any reason and the first to be investigated so thoroughly on issues relating to personal finances.

MOOD ON THE HILL--Angry Democrats not ready to forgive and forget. Page 17

EXCERPTS OF SPEECH: Page 17

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°