Jim Wright

For other people with the same name, see James Wright.
Jim Wright
48th Speaker of the United States
House of Representatives
In office
January 6, 1987  June 6, 1989
President Ronald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Tip O'Neill
Succeeded by Tom Foley
House Majority Leader
In office
January 3, 1977  January 3, 1987
Deputy John Brademas
Tom Foley
Preceded by Tip O'Neill
Succeeded by Tom Foley
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Texas's 12th district
In office
January 3, 1955  June 30, 1989
Preceded by Wingate Lucas
Succeeded by Pete Geren
Member of the Texas House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born James Claude Wright, Jr.
(1922-12-22)December 22, 1922
Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
Died May 6, 2015(2015-05-06) (aged 92)
Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
Resting place

City Greenwood Cemetery

Weatherford, Texas
Political party Democratic
  • Mary Ethelyn Lemons
    (m. 1942–1972; divorced)
  • Betty Hay
    (m. 1972–2015; his death)
Children 4
Alma mater Weatherford College
University of Texas, Austin
Religion Methodist[1]
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1941–1946
Unit United States Army Air Forces
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Distinguished Flying Cross

James Claude Wright, Jr. (December 22, 1922 – May 6, 2015), usually known as Jim Wright, was an American politician who served as the 48th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1987 to 1989, representing Texas' 12th congressional district as a Democrat from 1955 to 1989.

Democratic U.S. Congressman from Texas who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the Speaker of the House from 1987 to 1989. Wright resigned from the House in 1989 because of a scandal.

Early life

Wright was born in Fort Worth, the son of Marie (Lyster) and James Claude Wright.[2] Because his father was a traveling salesman, Wright and his two sisters were reared in numerous communities in Texas and Oklahoma. He mostly attended Fort Worth and Dallas public schools, eventually graduating from Oak Cliff High School, then studied at Weatherford College in his mother's hometown of Weatherford, the county seat of Parker County west of Fort Worth, and then at the University of Texas at Austin, but he never received a bachelor's degree.[3]

In December 1941, Wright enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces, and after training, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Corps in 1942. He trained as a bombardier and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross flying during combat in B-24 Liberators with the 530th Bomb Squadron, 380th Bomb Group (Heavy) in the South Pacific during World War II. His retelling of his wartime exploits is contained in his 2005 book The Flying Circus: Pacific War—1943—As Seen through A Bombsight.[4]

After the war, he made his home in Weatherford, where he joined partners in forming a Trade Show exhibition and marketing firm. As a Democrat, he won his first election without opposition in 1946 to the Texas House of Representatives, where he served from 1947 to 1949. He was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1948, after a rival claimed that Wright was weak in opposing both communism and interracial marriage.[3] He was the mayor of Weatherford from 1950 to 1954. In 1953, he served as president of the League of Texas Municipalities.[4]

Career in Congress

In 1954, he was elected to Congress from Texas's 12th congressional district,which included Fort Worth and Weatherford. He won despite the fervid opposition of Amon G. Carter, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper and later the benefactor of the Amon Carter Museum. Carter supported the incumbent Democrat Wingate Lucas. Wright would be re-elected fourteen times, gradually rising in prominence in the party and in Congress. He developed a close relationship thereafter with Amon G. Carter, Jr. Wright often said that the easiest way to "defeat an enemy is to make him your friend."[3] In 1956, Wright refused to join most of his regional colleagues in signing the segregationist Southern Manifesto.[5] In 1957, he voted for the Civil Rights Act, which created the Division of Civil Rights within the U.S. Justice Department and the investigatory Civil Rights Commission. Signed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the law was pushed through Congress by U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and Speaker Sam Rayburn. However, Wright refused to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required desegregation of public accommodations and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was signed into law by Wright's friend, President Johnson.[3]

In 1961, Wright finished in third place in the special election called to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by then Vice President Lyndon Johnson.[3] Two finalists for the Senate emerged from a field of seventy-one candidates. College professor John G. Tower, then of Wichita Falls, narrowly defeated the interim appointee William Blakley, a Dallas industrialist, in a runoff election. Tower hence became the first Republican senator from Texas since Reconstruction.[4] Wright was riding in the motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Wright continued to serve in the House and became a senior member of the Public Works Committee. Though in line to become committee chairman, he entered the race for House Majority Leader and was elected by one vote in December 1976, defeating Richard Bolling of Missouri and Phillip Burton of California. Wright won the majority leadership position with the support of all but two Democrats from the large Texas delegation, all Democrats on the Public Works Committee, and virtually all other Southern representatives.[3]

In the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Jim Wright is known for the Wright Amendment, a contentious law he sponsored that restricted air travel from Dallas's secondary airport, Love Field. Passed in 1979, the Wright Amendment was originally designed to protect the then-fledgling Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The Amendment allows non-stop flights originating from or bound to any commercial airport within 50 nautical miles (93 km) of the DFW Airport Control Tower to serve only states bordering Texas. This requires any flight going to or coming from a destination within that 50-mile (80 km) radius (Dallas Love Field and the now-defunct Greater Southwest International Airport in Fort Worth were the only airports affected) to land in a contiguous (bordering) state before continuing on to its destination. This effectively limited traffic from Love Field and GSIA to small, regional airlines (and provided the springboard for the later success of Southwest Airlines, which initially flew only within Texas) who were largely unable to compete with DFW Airport as a result. While the Amendment was welcomed at first, there were increasing doubts about its necessity as DFW grew into one of the three largest airports in the world. Many saw it as a boondoggle to benefit one particular group. Others saw it as an unlawful restraint of trade imposed against the two affected airports, and no others. However, the largest opposition came increasingly from people who simply felt that the amendment had outlived its usefulness and was also an unwarranted intrusion on the free markets of the deregulated airline industry. In 2006 Congress passed the Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006, which repealed the Wright Amendment in stages; the last restrictions on travel from Love Field were lifted on October 13, 2014.[6][7][8][9] [10]

Wright strongly supported the Superconducting Super Collider project in Waxahachie in Ellis County,[3] but the work was halted in 1993.[11]

Speaker Wright, 1991
Oil portrait by Marshall Bouldin III

Speaker of the House

In 1986 he was elected Speaker of the House, succeeding Tip O'Neill[12] when the latter retired the following January.

In 1988, he chaired the Democratic Party convention that nominated Michael Dukakis for president. During that convention, Wright introduced John F. Kennedy, Jr, for Kennedy's first televised speech.[4] About 25 years earlier, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, in his final speech before being assassinated, praised Wright's service in the Congress, saying "and here in Fort Worth he has contributed to its growth. He speaks for Fort Worth and he speaks for the country, and I don't know any city that is better represented in the Congress of the United States than Fort Worth."[13]

Aide controversy

In 1989, controversy arose from media reports that Wright's main aide, John Mack, had violently attacked Pamela Small sixteen years earlier. Small was attempting to replace blinds in a store Mack managed, and he took her to the storeroom where he then asked her to lie down. When she refused, he repeatedly hit her in the head with a hammer, stabbed her with a steak knife, and slashed her throat, before putting her in his car and going to see a movie.[14][15]

Small survived the attack, and reported it to the police. Mack pleaded guilty to malicious wounding "with the intent to maim, disfigure, disable and kill" and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However, after repeated correspondence with Wright, whose daughter was married to his brother, Mack was paroled after serving less than 27 months and given a job working for Wright on Capitol Hill. Critics, including feminist activist Andrea Dworkin, alleged that Wright manipulated the legal system to get Mack off and, subsequently, protected him from media scrutiny.[16] The story later broke in 1989, when Pamela Small gave an interview about her ordeal with The Washington Post. Amid media criticism, John Mack resigned from his post.[17]

Ethics investigation and resignation

In 1988 Wright became the target of an inquiry by the House Ethics Committee. Their report in early 1989 implied that he had used bulk purchases of his book, Reflections of a Public Man, to earn speaking fees in excess of the allowed maximum, and that his wife, Betty, was given a job and perks to avoid the limit on gifts. Faced with an increasing loss of effectiveness, Wright tendered his resignation as Speaker on May 31, 1989, the resignation to become effective on the selection of a successor.[18] He was the first Speaker to resign because of a scandal. On June 6, the Democratic Caucus brought Wright's speakership to an end by selecting his replacement, Tom Foley of Washington, and on June 30 Wright resigned his seat in Congress.[19]

The incident was controversial and was a part of the increasing partisan infighting that has plagued the Congress ever since. The original charges were filed by Newt Gingrich[20] in 1988 and their effect propelled Gingrich's own career advancement to the Speaker's chair.[4]

Michael Parenti, critic of the national security state, attributed Wright's forced resignation to the critical questions he was raising in the late 1980s with regard to CIA covert actions in Nicaragua.[21] Wright had not only criticized Reagan's policy, but taken the extremely unusual step of entering into negotiations with the Nicaraguan government as speaker.[22]

William K. Black claims that Wright's interventions in the Savings and Loan (S&L) crisis "were decisive in forcing him to resign in disgrace from the House". Black wrote that Wright had been saved from financial ruin and elevated to Speaker of the House by massive campaign contributions from control frauds like Charles Keating. The control frauds managed to get hundreds of executives of S&Ls, many legitimate, to talk with their representatives in the US congress to delay effective governmental action against the frauds. This action only increased (a) the billions of dollars their ultimate failures cost the US taxpayers and (b) the magnitude of the resulting scandal. The scandal robbed Wright's Democratic party of the "sleaze factor" issue in the 1988 presidential election, thereby handing the election to the Republican George H. W. Bush, according to Black. He resigned to avoid the official documentation of his role in this that would almost certainly have come from hearings by the United States House Committee on Ethics, as it did for the Keating Five.[23]

The charges filed against Wright did not mention Nicaragua. The Iran/Contra operations from 1984 through most of 1986 involved the secret governmental support of contra military and paramilitary activities in Nicaragua, despite Congressional prohibition on the support. The Reagan White House was very involved in the sale of U.S. arms to Iran in contravention of stated U.S. policy and in possible violation of arms-export controls. In late November 1986, Reagan Administration officials announced that some of the proceeds from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran had been diverted to the Contras. President Bush's pardon of Secretary Weinberger on December 24, 1992 pre-empted a trial in which defense counsel indicated that they intended to call Bush as a witness.[24]

A report by special counsel implicated him in a number of influence peddling charges, such as Vernon Savings and Loan, and attempting to get William K. Black fired as the deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) under Gray. However, the charges against him concluded that, "while the Congressman's dealings with representatives of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board may have been intemperate, the committee was not persuaded that there is reason to believe that he exercised undue influence in his dealings with that agency."[25][26]

Life after Congress

After his resignation from the House, Wright retired to Fort Worth. He served as a professor at Texas Christian University there, teaching a course titled "Congress and the Presidents." He also wrote several books after his retirement. He was an avid reader, but was stricken with macular degeneration.[3]

In 2004, Wright was inducted into the Texas Trail Hall of Fame in the Fort Worth Stockyards. His exhibit says "Fort Worth Loves Him!"

In November 2013, Wright was denied a voter ID card at a Texas Department of Public Safety office, as he hadn't brought the duly-required documentation with him on the day of his visit.[27] He told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that “Nobody was ugly to us, but they insisted that they wouldn’t give me an ID.” Wright expressed concern that the Texas voter ID law will unfairly deny elderly voters like himself the ability to vote. Wright indicated that he has worked out a solution with the Texas DPS that would allow him to cast a ballot in an upcoming election, but feared that other elderly people, especially those in retirement homes, would be unable to navigate the requirements.

Toward the end of his life, in May 2014, Wright expressed regret over resigning as Speaker of the House. He said it may have been a "gross misjudgment" at the time.[28]


Wright died at the age of 92 on May 6, 2015. He was survived by his wife Betty and four children. He had previously undergone surgery twice to treat cancer, though it is not clear if his death was cancer-related.[29]

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, the last Democrat to serve as House Speaker, stated, "Speaker Wright was a person of deep courage, brilliant eloquence, and complete mastery of the legislative process. Speaker Wright's strong, decisive leadership built an indelible legacy of progress, not only in his beloved state of Texas, but around the world. Wright championed prosperity for every working family, and helped lead the way to peace to Central America." The incumbent Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-OH, stated that, "Speaker Wright understood as well as anyone this institution's closeness to the people, calling the House 'the raw essence of the nation'." President Barack Obama stated, "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. Today, our thoughts and prayers are with Jim's family and friends, and the people he represented in Congress for so many years."[30]



  1. Hahn, Heather (December 15, 2015). "2015: Notable United Methodists Remembered; Jim Wright". United methodist News Service. Nashville, TN.
  2. "Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright Dies". The Texas Tribune.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Jim Riddlesperger of Texas Christian University, "Jim Wright", West Texas Historical Association and East Texas Historical Association, joint meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, February 26, 2010
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 "James D. Wright Papers". UT-Arlington Special Collections. Retrieved March 21, 2012.
  5. Badger, Tony (1999). "Southerners Who Refused to Sign the Southern Manifesto". The Historical Journal. 42 (2): 517–534. doi:10.1017/s0018246x98008346. JSTOR 3020998.
  6. Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006 At The Library of Congress http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:SN03661:@@@R|/bss/d109query.html
  7. Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006 Enacted Into Law http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=92562&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=917522&highlight=
  8. Dallas Love Field Chronological History http://www.dallas-lovefield.com/lovenotes/lovechrono.html
  9. CAB Asks Fort Worth and Dallas to Pick One Airport to Serve Both, Wall Street Journal (1964) http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/djreprints/access/320169912.html?dids=320169912:320169912&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:AI
  10. "Two Cities Agree on Site for a Regional Airport". New York Times. October 24, 1965.
  11. Wines, Michael (October 20, 1993). "House Kills the Supercollider, And Now It Might Stay Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
  12. James C. Wright, Jr. Encyclopædia Britannica
  13. "John F. Kennedy: Remarks at the Breakfast of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.".
  14. Ringle, Ken (May 7, 1989). "Victim Sees Attacker Rise To Power". Washington Post. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  15. Oreskes, Michael (May 5, 1989). "Wright Aide's Past Shocks Capitol". The New York Times. New York: NYTC. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  16. Dworkin, Andrea (May 14, 1989). "Political Callousness on Violence Toward Women". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  17. Toner, Robin (May 12, 1989). "Wright Aide Quits Amid Furor on '73 Crime". The New York Times. New York: NYTC. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  18. "Speaker Jim Wright's Downfall – 1989". The Washington Post. July 21, 1998.
  19. English, Ross M (2003). The United States Congress. Manchester University Press. p. 150. ISBN 978-0-7190-6309-1.
  20. Smith, Stephen S (2007). The American Congress. Cambridge University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-521-70836-4.
  21. Michael Parenti, "State vs. Government," in Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader [San Francisco: City Lights, 2007], p. 203.
  22. Parenti, Michael (1995). Against Empire. City Lights Publishers. p. 149. ISBN 0-87286-298-4.
  23. Black, William K. (2005). The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry. University of Texas Press. pp. 83, 154–156 and others. ISBN 0-292-72139-0.
  24. Walsh. "Contra Report - Executive Summary". Intelligence Resource Program. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved August 5, 2013.
  25. "Excerpts From Charges Against Wright by the House Panel". New York Times. April 18, 1989.
  26. Riccucci, Norma (1995). Unsung Heroes. Georgetown University Press. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-0-87840-595-4.
  27. "Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright Denied Voter ID Card". TPM.
  28. "Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright dead at 92". Dallas Morning News. May 6, 2015. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
  29. "Former U.S. Rep. Jim Wright Dead At 92". CBS DFW. May 6, 2015. Retrieved May 6, 2015.
  30. Deirdre Walsh, Senior Congressional Producer (May 6, 2015). "Former House Speaker Jim Wright dead at age 92 - CNNPolitics.com". CNN.

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Jim Wright.
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Wingate Lucas
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Texas's 12th congressional district

Succeeded by
Pete Geren
Party political offices
Preceded by
Tip O'Neill
House Majority Leader
Succeeded by
Tom Foley
Preceded by
Martha Collins
Permanent Chairperson of the Democratic National Convention
Succeeded by
Ann Richards
Political offices
Preceded by
Tip O'Neill
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
Succeeded by
Tom Foley
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