Seventeen years ago Democrats jettisoned the remnants of their eroding spine and House Speaker Jim Wright went down in flames. Wright’s fall was a seminal moment for Democrats as well as our national politics. Already on the defensive following defeats in three consecutive presidential elections Democrats crawled into a fetal position and became a self-gelding machine of ineptitude. Corporate militarism and Christian radicalism bagged a trophy and were on the march.
Wright was a complicated, vain and arrogant man imbued with a sense of self-importance. In his line of work narcissism goes with the territory and Wright had plenty to spare. But there was more to him than that. Some politicians merely want to be big and others want to do big things. Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1922 he was a product of the Depression. Wright both understood and empathized with those in poverty and was committed to policies that benefited working people and the poor. He enjoyed power and he also believed in using it for causes bigger than himself.
As Speaker Tip O’Neill’s second in command Wright stewed impatiently when Democrats failed to challenge President Reagan’s program of class warfare against working people. O’Neill did lead a Democratic rebound in the 1982 mid-term elections but Wright wanted to do more. John Barry described one scene in his brilliant 1989 book, The Ambition and the Power: The Fall of Jim Wright : A True Story of Washington in which O’Neill patted Wright on the knee and told him to wait for a Democratic president. According to Barry, O’Neill believed Democrats were fighting a “rearguard” action.
That wasn’t good enough for Wright and after O’Neill retired in 1987 he utilized the Speaker’s chair to push back against the weakened Reagan Administration. Wright smelled blood as Reagan was besieged by Iran-Contra and appeared to be an ineffective lame duck.
He asserted that congress was a “co-equal” branch on foreign policy and negotiated with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Not content to merely oppose Reagan’s criminally immoral policies in Central America, Wright was determined to formulate a peace policy independent of the White House. He also attempted to override a Reagan veto regarding trade policy in 1987 and failed.
Yet even in failure Wright demonstrated toughness. He wanted to seize the initiative and was not shy about using power to achieve progressive objectives. Republicans regarded Wright as overly partisan and some Democrats such as Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski were threatened by his vast accumulation of power. Another old bull, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairmen John Dingell also felt threatened.
Unlike O’Neill, Wright was not inclined to respect the prerorogatives of committee chairmen such as Rostenkowski’s and Dingell. He believed the interests of the Democratic Party were bigger than individual fiefdoms. Wright also preferred to concentrate power in his hands and his ruthlessness was off putting to senior colleagues.
A young Republican firebrand named Newt Gingrich also believed Wright was a threat. He speculated that if Wright wasn’t stopped he might become the most successful speaker since Henry Clay and Gingrich’s dreams of a Republican majority would wither on the vine.
Gingrich filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee about matters that seem rather pedestrian today. Ostensibly, Wright was accused of using bulk purchases of his book, Reflections of a Public Man to earn speaking fees in excess of the allowed maximum. The report issued by the House Ethics Committee also charged that Wright’s wife, Betty, was given a job and perks to avoid the limit on gifts.
Gingrich skillfully exploited the media to stoke outrage and promote both Wright and Democrats as representing a culture of corruption. Among those who supported Gingrich’s public relations offensive against Wright was a Republican Minority Whip from Wyoming named Dick Cheney prior to becoming George Bush’s Secretary of Defense.
Democrats initially rallied to their Speaker but their resolve disintegrated and he was forced to resign on May 31, 1989. Wright’s demise was a precursor to the wipe out in 1994 that made Newt Gingrich speaker and transformed our politics. Ironically, Wright’s rival for power Dan Rostenkowski also stepped into scandal with the House post office controversy and he served time in prison.
Even with Bill Clinton in the White House Democrats fought a defensive rearguard action against a conservative iron triangle comprised of the media, think tanks and K-Street lobbyists. Republican hubris metastasized over the next decade as they impeached President Clinton for having sex with an intern and proceeded to steal two consecutive presidential elections in 2000 and 2004.
Whereas Democratic politicians exploited their offices for garden variety corruption: speaking fees, postage stamps, patronage and questionable book deals the GOP envisioned government as their personal candy store. In the past twelve years government has been stripped bare and even basic functions such as military transport and security is being outsourced to private corporations who over bill tax payers and torture detainees. Remarkably the government is doing less and spending more.
We’ve seen the result as a cabal of plutocrats enriched themselves and our national security, education and access to health care have eroded to pitiful levels. Other functions of a Democratic society such as reliable vote counting and access to polling stations regardless of race or wealth are regarded as an inconvenience to be brushed aside.
And of course the GOP exploited 9/11 to wage war against a country that didn’t attack us, wasn’t a threat but offered the promise of brown gold. On the periphery of failure these past dozen years was the collegial Dennis Hastert.
Hastert is as an enabler for the GOP’s reign of indecency. Initially a soldier in Tom DeLay’s whip organization he became the amiable and forgettable public face as Republicans compromised national security, condemned poor people to death in New Orleans, bashed homosexuals while consorting with pedophiles and obliterated our fiscal solvency.
Hastert is the ultimate chucklehead crony with a title but no interest in management because he’s always been the puppet of others. His role was to look the other way while his masters broke the law and run interference as required.
Interference appears to have included covering for Mark Foley as he satisfied his perverse lust with vulnerable teenage boys. Republicans claim they are the party who wants to protect America from harm but their Speaker didn’t care about protecting children under his charge.
Seventeen years ago Jim Wright was forced to resign because his party was cowardly and weak. In 2006 Dennis Hastert is fighting to stay in power because he and his party have no shame. We’ve come full circle.
ADDENDUM: The topic above was cross posted and front paged on the community blog Swords Crossed. Click here to review their comments. A cross posting in Daily Kos was "rescued" by Susan G and their comments can be reviewed by clicking here.