Politics & Government

20 years later, former House Speaker Jim Wright reflects

Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright
Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright Jim Mahoney / Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON — He's slowed down a bit; he has trouble reading; after tongue cancer, he doesn't sound the same, back when he was the star elocutionist on the House floor; but otherwise former Speaker Jim Wright is surprisingly the same — knowledgeable, opinionated, involved — as he was 20 years ago when he gave up his dream job, second in line to the presidency.

In an hour long interview from his office at Texas Christian University, Wright, 86, says simply, "Gosh, I feel good for an old geezer. I'm a lucky man."

Wright, who relinquished the post under pressure from a year-long ethics investigation, says he remembers exactly the day he resigned and how he cast his last House vote on June 6 for the man, Rep. Tom Foley, D-Wash., who would replace him.

"I have no complaints," he says. "It's been beautiful. To have left such a position, the speakership, which was the fulfillment of a lifetime ambition – a person who gets to do in life what they want to do is a fortunate individual."

And since he left the speakership, a 34-year political career and Washington itself behind, Wright has made a new life in Texas as what used to be known as a man of letters – writing, speaking, teaching.

"For the first five years, I was on the speaking circuit," says Wright. "I spoke in more than 50 universities, from Gonzaga to South Florida, from the University of Maine to San Diego State." Speechmaking and writing books made Wright financially comfortable. "I made five times as much as if I’d stayed in Congress," he said.

Tired of the constant traveling, he worked with Arch Petroleum Co. as a consultant and frequently worked on projects in Mexico. "It was a fun effort," he said. When the company was sold, the former speaker turned to academia, where he has taught a semester-long government class at TCU, "Congress and the Presidents," for 18 years

Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, whose political career was launched when he succeeded Wright in Congress, (Geren served 1989 – 1997) is filled with admiration for the post-political Wright: "He's continued to write and teach kids in what is an additional chapter in a life of public service."

It is, volunteers Wright, not always easy.

"Every year when I'm grading term papers, I think it's a pain in the neck," he said. "Then, when the new term comes, I think I'll do it one more year." Among his former students is Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., whose father, David Boren served in the Senate during Wright's time.

The former speaker wrote a column for the Star-Telegram -- at $250 each -- for more than a dozen years until he, too, was a victim of cost-cutting a few years ago.

"I miss it," he said.

Wright has also written four books since returning to Fort Worth – about his time in Congress and his peace efforts in Latin America and two memoirs of growing up in Weatherford and being a bombardier in World War II.

But Wright hasn't written at length about what seems to be the defining period of his life – surviving two cancers. Surgery for tongue cancer 13 years ago altered his speech so much that he had to re-learn to enunciate – something that was so identified with him as a speaker. "It sounds like I've had a couple of drinks," said Wright, laughing, "but they'll never know for sure."

Nine years ago, Wright learned he had cancer in his jawbone and had surgery to replace his jawbone with one of his leg bones.

"So lucky," he said, to have survived.

He closely follows President Obama, who he admires for "his equanimity," and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who invited him to the 2007 State of the Union speech.

The "mindless cannibalism" that he warned the House of in his resignation speech May 31, 1989, of party warfare, "seems to have gotten worse," he said.

Asked his thoughts about former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., possibly running for president, Wright said, "I have none. I don't think it bears thinking about."

Gingrich filed a demand for a Wright ethics investigation, which grew into a number of issues, and led to findings by a House ethics special counsel that staffers pushed bulk sales of a Wright book on lobbyists to avoid House limits on speaking fees; that Wright received more than $140,000 in gifts from Fort Worth businessman George Mallick, including use of a Fort Worth condominium at cut rates and a salary and car to Betty Wright for no work; and that Wright brow-beat federal regulators on behalf of Texas thrift operators.

Gingrich himself faced ethics charges as speaker and, lacking sufficient GOP member support after the 1998 elections cost Republican seats, was forced to resign.

Wright, for his part, said he was the one who asked for the investigation, thinking it would be over in two weeks. He resigned, he said, so that the fury around him would subside – even though he had clearly lost support among Democratic members.

Still, he is firm in his stance: "I'm convinced I didn't violate any laws – or any House rules, either."

Wright had a 20 year reunion this spring when he returned to Washington and was recognized on the House floor April 1 after meeting with the Texas House Democratic delegation. He was also the guest of honor at a dinner and held a dinner for his former staff.

"I'm glad that I served," said Wright. "I'm glad I had that opportunity."