In Washington every decision made, every word spoken, every scandal uncovered, occurs in the context of a perpetual political struggle among the parties, the ideologies, and the branches of government that together wield power in America. This fact often eludes the press, which tends to divide scandals, for instance, into the categories of genuine and/or “political.” But in Washington all scandals are political. As John M. Barry shows in The Ambition and the Power, James C. Wright’s recent fall from power as Speaker of the House (and the nation’s most prominent Democrat) was no more “about” ethics violations than Oliver North’s was about security fences and “arms for hostages.” Both were surrogates for more fundamental battles.
From his first day as Speaker, Jim Wright set out openly and unabashedly to enlarge the powers of Congress, of his party, and of his position within that party at the expense of the President, the Republican party, opponents within his own party, and anyone else who stood in the way. What was behind Wright’s drive for power? The answer, at least according to Barry’s account, is simple, timeless, yet often forgotten. As Disraeli once said of Parliament, “We come here for fame.”
Every politician who ever lived shares this dream. What distinguishes the merely ambitious from the too ambitious is the willingness, on occasion, to sacrifice power for principle, to accept necessary limits, and to recognize that lasting fame often comes from just such sacrifices. Apparently Jim Wright’s ambition was untempered by these considerations. Although he claimed to emulate Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texan of whom another Texas Democrat, Maury Maverick, once said, “He would sell out his grandmother if he thought that would again make him Speaker of the House,” Rayburn’s love of power was modest compared with Wright’s.
Jim Wright ruled the House with a heavy hand. His abuse of House rules will long be remembered, particularly by Republicans whose few rights as the minority the Speaker eagerly trampled. Once, in a parliamentary maneuver to win a vote, Wright created two “legislative days” on the same calendar day. On another occasion, trying to pressure a wavering colleague into switching his vote, Wright held open the time for casting ballots so long past the traditional allotment that the event has become notorious in the House as “the longest vote.” Trivial as these stunts may seem, they created a mood of defiant insurrection among his political opponents and they transformed the image of Congressman Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.), who had made Wright’s destruction his personal goal, from that of an “irresponsible” firebrand to that of a recognized leader of his party.
Even Democrats complained of Wright’s leadership. Barry recounts many instances in which the Speaker lied or broke promises to close Democratic associates. He rarely consulted with colleagues before making decisions, but he expected his troops to follow him even at what many Democrats believed was great political risk to themselves and their party. Wright’s handling of the congressional pay raise, for example, an issue which he decided, by himself, to put to a politically embarrassing vote, infuriated friends and enemies alike and ate away at his support as the scandal over his finances grew.
Wright’s leadership differed dramatically from that of his predecessor, Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill. Where O’Neill was content to manage the House, Wright preferred to coerce it. But then, Wright was also more ambitious than O’Neill, who, though he often opposed the policies of Ronald Reagan, saw no virtue in an all-out war with the President. Wright, by contrast, hated and envied Reagan, and was bent on open political combat.
In furthering his ambitions, Wright engaged in a public battle with the executive branch over both domestic and foreign policy. When nominated for the Speakership in 1986, he told his Democratic colleagues he wanted the legislative branch to “renew its rightful role as the major initiator of policy for the United States.” According to Barry, Wright sought a “new balance” between the branches that “would allow a Speaker to confront a strong President as a near equal and to dominate a weak President.” As Speaker, he pushed hard to “govern the country from the House.”
But govern toward what end? In domestic policy, Wright’s position can be summed up easily. He was a “tax-and-spend” Democrat. The very day he was elected Speaker he called for new taxes, and he never stopped calling for them. The purpose, he made clear, was to increase government spending. He fought efforts by conservative Southern Democrats to tie tax increases directly to deeper cuts in the budget, and supported Northern liberals who wanted to put new tax revenues into more expensive welfare programs.
Wright may have fancied himself a New Deal/Great Society Democrat, like Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson before him-Barry, at any rate, never really questions these pretensions-but his commitment to increased spending, and therefore to increased taxing, was driven by other impulses. He wanted to fight Reagan (who sought lower taxes and lower spending). He wanted to prove to the suspicious, powerful, and therefore dangerous liberal bloc within his own party that he was not a Texas conservative. Above all, spending was a crucial aspect of his power as Speaker. Congressmen provide services to their constituents, and a powerful Speaker can decide who gets to give what, and how much. He rewards loyalty with largesse, punishes disloyalty with largesse withheld. Tight spending makes a Speaker’s job difficult; free spending makes him strong and popular.
In the end, however, Wright chose the wrong turf on which to fight Reagan. By refusing to raise taxes, refusing to cut the defense budget, and successfully blaming federal deficits on the Democratic Congress, Reagan checkmated the acquisitive legislative branch and its power-hungry Speaker. Wright’s battle with Reagan over taxes and the budget hurt the Speaker more than it hurt the President, and led to dangerous conflicts with other Democrats who believed the call for new taxes was politically suicidal.
Blocked by Reagan on the domestic front, Wright ventured into foreign policy, where his ambition took him well beyond the traditional limits of congressional behavior. In foreign affairs, Wright once said, “I must uphold the legislative branch as co-equal with the executive. . . . The people who wrote the Constitution never intended the Congress to be subservient.” Of his controversial involvement in Central American diplomacy, Wright told NBC’s Tom Brokaw, “I don’t need the permission of the administration. I represent the American people too.”
Barry, however, believes that Nicaragua “was perhaps the one issue over which a Speakership could be lost,” and the reason had to do with Wright’s own public record on Central America. The fact was that the large Left-liberal bloc of House Democrats, for whom the battle against contra aid was a defining issue, mistrusted Wright, and with good reason. In 1978, as House majority leader, he had joined more than 70 conservative Congressmen in sending a letter to then-President Carter, urging him “to do your utmost to demonstrate the support of the United States government for the government of Nicaragua and President Anastasio Somoza, a long and consistent ally of the United States.” The letter warned that Nicaragua might otherwise fall to the Sandinistas, “whose leaders have been trained in Havana and Moscow and whose goal is to make Nicaragua the new Cuba of the Western hemisphere.”
With such past views on record, Wright would probably have been better off staying away from too salient a role in the controversy over contra aid. But when the Reagan administration, hobbled by its own Iran-contra scandal, offered to negotiate a deal, the Speaker could not resist the chance to act as a “coequal” in foreign policy.
Once again, principle and ideology played little role in his actions. Wright obviously could not allow himself to be seen by liberals as an ally of the administration’s anti-Sandinista policies, but neither could he simply support the Sandinista position and thereby risk the anger of anti-Communist Southern Democrats. In his effort to avoid the trap, Wright broke new ground for legislative power, involving Congress deeply in the conduct of foreign policy and actually attempting to supplant the executive branch as the nation’s representative abroad. Wright sought to have at least as much influence over events in Central America as the administration. In the end, he had more.
At a time when the official policy of the administration was still opposed to negotiations, Wright negotiated directly with the Sandinistas. He also threatened to cut foreign aid to Honduras and El Salvador if those countries did not cooperate in promoting “the peace process.” He advised the contra leaders they would never again receive military aid, and should strike the best deal they could with the Sandinistas. He publicized classified information concerning CIA support of opposition groups inside Nicaragua.
Above all, the man who had once warned of a “new Cuba” became a consistent apologist for the Sandinistas, excusing their censorship of La Prensa, their attempts to intimidate the Catholic Church, and their continuing support for guerrillas fighting against the government of his erstwhile “friend,” Josß Napoleón Duarte of El Salvador. According to Barry, early in 1987 Louis Stokes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, advised Wright of a cable that had been intercepted on its way to Managua from the Sandinista embassy in Washington. In their analysis of Congress, the Sandinistas had concluded that Wright was the key to ending contra aid. They were right.
Yet as Barry tells the story, once again Wright had chosen the wrong issue, and in the end his foreign-policy forays hurt him in Congress as much as his other attempts to expand his power. They “radicalized” the Republicans, including such normally cool heads as Richard C. Cheney and Robert Michel. They even, according to Barry, damaged him among Democrats. If so, it is no small irony. Wright had justified his intrusions into diplomacy on the grounds that he represented the American people as much as the President did. In fact, he did not even represent the Congress, the House, or his own party.
It would be satisfying to conclude that attempts like Wright’s to upset the balance among the branches, to exceed traditional and constitutional limits, will always end in failure. But that would be precisely the wrong lesson to draw. True, Wright made himself vulnerable, but he might have survived nevertheless if not for Newt Gingrich, who was willing to use against him a weapon which most conservatives and Republicans shied away from: scandal.
Barry records how Gingrich and his staff kept the issue of Wright’s financial ethics alive for over a year when few cared about it and when most Republican Congressmen were embarrassed by Gingrich’s outspoken attacks on the Speaker. It was, indeed, a dirty business, and after reading Barry’s account one feels some sympathy for Wright in his ordeal. He was brought down, as it happens, in a manner unpleasantly familiar to veterans of the Reagan administration itself. After more than a year of scrutiny by the press, the House Ethics Committee, and an “independent counsel,” most charges against him remained unproven, although the counsel, Richard Phelan, conducted his work with the ferocity and single-mindedness of a district attorney running for mayor. The bevy of investigators, appointed and self-appointed, spared no effort to find Wright guilty of something, yet even so they ended up long on the “appearance” of impropriety, short on hard evidence.
That appearance, however, was enough to destroy Wright’s career. The investigation and its coverage in the press made Wright a liability to the Democratic party, and the House Ethics Committee, normally a lenient court, was therefore unusually hard on him. Composed not of impartial jurors but of twelve politicians with a direct stake in the outcome, the committee protected the interests of both parties by obtaining Wright’s resignation. In the final “plea bargain,” the committee did not ask for, or need, an admission of guilt.
Some might prefer Wright to have fallen in a “cleaner” way, not harassed over dubious financial ledgers but confronted directly for his constitutional transgressions and lust for power. Yet Wright was not about to go any other way, and one need no more shed tears for him than liberals and Democrats shed tears for Oliver North, Edwin Meese, Theodore Olson, Robert Bork, John Tower, and all the rest. In the 1980’s, what Leonard Garment has called “prosecutorial politics” became the liberals’ weapon of choice for fighting ideological and political battles. Scandal was their means of weakening a presidency they could not win at the ballot box, of soiling the Republican party, of discrediting conservative ideas. For Republicans, conservatives, and the executive branch, it was important that Jim Wright, the highest-ranking Democrat in Congress, fall by the same sword that until then had been wielded fearlessly by his comrades. Only when they realized that Democratic congressmen, too, could become victims of scandal-mongering would they have an incentive to stop.
Toward the end of his time in office, drowning in accusations, Wright worried aloud that “history will not record me accurately.” If history errs, however, it will be because too much attention was paid to Wright’s alleged financial misdeeds, and not enough to the larger matters at stake in his rise and fall from power. John M. Barry has not made that mistake. His remarkable chronicle of Jim Wright’s two years as Speaker provides much for historians and politicians to ponder.