A revealing biography of a complex, contradictory political leader.
For more than three decades, James Claude Wright Jr. (1922-2015) represented Fort Worth, Texas, in Congress, including stints as majority leader and, finally, in the position he coveted: speaker of the House. A liberal Democrat from a conservative district, he served under eight presidents, earning a reputation as an astute pragmatist “able to bridge divides.” Flippen (History/Southeastern Oklahoma State Univ.; Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right, 2011, etc.) draws on Wright’s memoirs, diaries, and papers; copious library and newspaper archives; and interviews (including conversations with Wright) to offer a definitive, richly detailed biography. Besides creating an indelible portrait of Wright, the author offers a vivid, eye-opening history of profound change in American politics since the 1950s, when Wright was elected to Congress: “consensus politics giving way to harsher partisan discord, and compromise turning into personal invective.” By the time Wright was forced to resign in 1989, “partisanship and scandal, driven in part by more efficient gerrymandering and the proliferation of new media, now defined government.” No leader is without enemies—and Wright, Flippen reveals, made some poor personal choices—but the successful campaign to oust him reflected a pervasive, malignant “devolution of political civility” incited by a vicious Newt Gingrich. In addition, his style of leadership was undermining his power, with many Democrats resenting “his forceful hand” and his tendency to dictate rather than consult. Wright’s liberal views were circumscribed by his conservative roots: progressive on many issues—the environment, education, and civil rights—he nevertheless supported the Vietnam War; opposed abortion and forced school integration; and upheld citizens’ right to bear arms. Flippen examines his relationships with vastly different presidents, most of whom—Ronald Reagan excepted—he found ways to support. He even found common ground with Richard Nixon, refusing for too long to believe the “litany of dirty tricks and corruption” accusations that led to the president’s resignation.
An engrossing history that sheds light on our own fractious times.