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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,494

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This is the grave of Jim Wright.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1922, Wright grew up not super well off. His father was a traveling salesman, which meant no real stability and the family moved all the time across both Texas and Oklahoma. He did well at school though and ended up first at Weatherford College and then the University of Texas. He never graduated from college though and really became perhaps the last prominent American political figure about which they can be said (I think anyway, though Scott Walker never graduated either, if you want to call that scumbag prominent). In any case, Wright joined the Army Air Force in 1941, became a second lieutenant in 1942, and flew bombing raids in the Pacific during the war. Somehow he survived the war. He won a Distinguished Flying Cross, among other medals.

At the end of the war, Wright went back to Weatherford, Texas, which had more or less become the home of his parents. He was interested in both business and politics. He won his first election to the Texas legislature in 1946 as a pretty liberal Democrat for that time and place. But he lost his reelection bid in 1948 on claims that he was pro-civil rights, which was not really true, as well as being soft of communism. Remember that this is the year when Lyndon Johnson won the Democratic primary for the Senate by openly lying that his opponent was pro-union, even though it was actually LBJ with the union ties. So the way to win in Texas was, and remains, being the worst person possible.

Well, this loss didn’t really stop Wright. He was liked in Weatherford and so he ran for mayor in 1950 and served for four years. He ran for Congress in 1954 and won, despite the Fort Worth kingmaker Amon Carter doing everything possible to see a more conservative Democrat win that primary. Once Wright won, he was in and wasn’t going anywhere. Some of this is that Texas was still a one-party state, but most of it is that Wright was really got at his job and really good at claiming real power in the House, which is not actually all that easy to do as the vast majority of congresscritters are completely forgettable.

What makes Wright particularly interesting here is that he did this without going all-in on the racism that defined so much of southern politics, and still does. So he refused to sign the Southern Manifesto in 1956, which was the statement by southern lawmakers that they would not abide by civil rights courts rulings and would oppose legislation. Almost everyone in the South signed it, but not in Texas. Perhaps in part because Lyndon Johnson refused to sign it, one of only three senators from ex-Confederate states to refuse (along with Al Gore Sr. and Estes Kefauver), the vast majority of the Texas delegation also refused. Only 5 of the 21 Democrats from Texas in Congress did sign it. Wright also got more cover here because among those other 16 was Sam Rayburn, who was not only Speaker but someone Wright modeled himself after. Wright went further though. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1960 and of 1968. He did not vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though he claimed it was because the law wasn’t strong enough. Well, one can see how he might be able to use that vote cynically if he wanted to and depending on his audience. Plus Wright voted against the 24th Amendment that eliminated the poll tax. Complicated guy on these issues, but at worse, better than most white southerners.

Wright was a big pork guy. He was very good at getting resources into his district and into other parts of Texas. He also protected his friends. The biggest play he ever made was to create the Wright Amendment that limited the flights out of Love Field so his buddies who ran DFW would benefit. They sure did too. This was specifically adopted because Wright was angry at Southwest Airlines for not vacating Love Field so he gutted the airport. Today of course it still remains the Southwest hub in the region. This was slowly repealed in the 2000s and since 2014 has been completely repealed. But the whole thing was perfect for a discussion of how Texas politics work. Wright was also was a huge supporter of the Superconducting Super Collider that was placed near the town of Waxahachie. That never actually opened and was a huge waste of money, but it did push a lot of federal money into Texas, which was half the point to begin with.

Wright was picked for leadership pretty quickly. He became deputy whip in 1971 with one specific goal–deal with the other southern legislators who did not want to follow the more liberal mainstream of the party. He also was pretty much a master of the House. He never headed a major committee, not in his whole career. But he was so good at lobbying for money that he did favors for people across the party and built up personal relationships with them. So in 1976, Tip O’Neill took over for the retiring Carl Albert as Speaker. Wright ran for Majority Leader and that was a tough run but Wright won by one vote over Philip Burton, who was an outstanding liberal from California.

Wright was Majority Leader for the next decade. Then he became Speaker when O’Neill retired. He continued being particularly good on race for white Texan guy. In 1987, Reagan vetoted the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which clarified that educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance had to comply with civil rights legislation. But Grove City College, that right-wing puke school in western Pennyslvania where Mike Pence likes to speak, had refused and there was a court case about it. Then the bill. Reagan vetoed it because he was a racist. But Congress overrode and Wright played a critical role in that.

Now, Wright’s finances were always a bit shady. I mean, he was a man of LBJ’s ilk. So…he wasn’t turning down money. Newt Gingrich saw an opportunity. Gingrich was already articulating the current Republican ideology that Democrats were the enemy of America and cooperating with them in any way was destroying America. So he manipulated the press by putting information about Wright into their hands. The real “scandal” here was about speaker fees and, you know, look Wright broke the rules. But did he really need to be forced out here? It was a bit much. Of course, Charles Keating was a long-time funder of Wright too and that money, well…..

In any case, Wright found his position untenable and so he resigned as Speaker and then from the House entirely. Tom Foley became Speaker. That didn’t work out real great.

In the aftermath, it’s not like Wright was struggling. He wrote lots of books, he taught at TCU, he did the good ol’ lobbying thing. He was a guy who knew a lot about politics and he had a lot of influence.

The last time Wright entered the news is one of the most interesting. As we all know, Republicans hate democracy. They want to make it as hard to vote as possible. By 2013, Wright was an old man. He didn’t have a driver’s license anymore. And so….he couldn’t get a voter ID card under Texas rules. He was pissed too. It was a perfect encapsulation of what Texas had become. Even a Speaker of the House had trouble voting! Not that Texas Republicans cared.

Wright died in 2015. He was 92 years old.

Jim Wright is buried in City Greenwood Cemetery, Weatherford, Texas. I got a crazy number of graves from that small town cemetery. Why Weatherford? I have no idea.

If you would like this series to visit other Speakers of the House, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Carl Albert is in McAlester, Oklahoma and John McCormack is in Boston. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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