Although Wright was in many ways a quintessential larger-than-life Texan, he became a creature of Washington during 34 years in the House of Representatives, using influence and applying pressure to get his projects and policies through Congress.
First elected to Congress in 1954, Wright, a Democrat, rose through the ranks with help from a speaker from Texas, Sam Rayburn, and became majority leader in 1977, then rose to speaker in 1987. He resigned under pressure from the House in 1989, due to an ethics investigation involving the possible violation of several House financial rules, including those involving gifts. He returned to Fort Worth where he taught at Texas Christian University and wrote several books.
Nearly 25 years later, memories over the partisan divide during his last days in office seemed to have dimmed as many politicians and associates from both parties remembered him fondly Wednesday.
“He was a committed public leader and a proud World War II veteran who dedicated much of his life to serving his country,” President Barack Obama said of Wright, in a statement. “As a representative from Texas and speaker of the House, Jim was passionate about investing in infrastructure, and he worked tirelessly to promote peace in Central America.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House “mourns the passing of Speaker Jim Wright of the state of Texas. We remember Speaker Wright today for his lifelong commitment to public service, from flying combat missions over the South Pacific to fighting for Fort Worth on the House floor.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a former speaker, called Wright “a person of deep courage, brilliant eloquence, and complete mastery of the legislative process.”
Former Congressman Pete Geren, who succeeded Wright in the House, said that Wright “consolidated much of the power of speaker and drove much of the agenda of the House. He said that Wright “broadened” the speaker’s role, noting his efforts in foreign policy, including his visit to the then-Soviet Union and his work for peace in the Middle East and Central America.
Geren served from 1989 to 1997 and is now president of the Sid Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth, which supports education and health and human services in Texas.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, praised Wright during a conference call with reporters. “Texas has a history of strong leaders and national leaders and he was cut from the same cloth. He helped the state of Texas...He dedicated his adult life to public service, which I admire. I view Jim Wright as one of those pragmatic leaders who did some good for the country.”
Wright encouraged a whole generation of people to enter public service, even, it turns out, from different parties.
Former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, who grew up in Fort Worth, served in Congress from 1979 to 2005 and credits Wright for putting him on the powerful House Rules Committee when he was a freshman. “He was just an extraordinary figure,” said Frost.
In 1987 Wright made sure all the appropriations bills were done on time, by Oct. 1, which is rarely achieved. “He made sure things got done,” said Frost. “He would go to the White House and argue for Fort Worth,” he said, especially for defense programs.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas,, also grew up in Fort Worth, where his parents were close friends with Wright, even though Williams’ father was a Republican.
“I met him in 1958 when my parents had a fundraiser for him at the house,” said Williams. “He asked me what I wanted to be and I said ‘a ballplayer.’”
Wright told him that if he wanted to be a congressman instead, to “do it big, run for the U.S. Congress.” Williams, who briefly played professional baseball, said that 54 years later when he was elected, he called Wright. “We both had laughed about it over the years,” he said.