Perspective On Complicated Political Figures Takes A While

Last week former House Speaker Jim Wright died at the age of 92. And a lot of people who had said various things–mostly negative–about this excellent legislator with feet of clay had reason to seek perspective. Among them is WaMo alum Steven Waldman, who once wrote a piece excoriating Wright and then later apologized to him. He reconsiders it all today in a web exclusive at Ten Miles Square. A sample:

I was just a few years out of college and working as an editor of the Washington Monthly. I decided to do a piece suggesting that it would be a terrible idea for the Democrats to let then-majority leader Wright become Speaker of the House. The gist of it was that the nature of the speakership had changed and that the leader now needed to have policy vision and be a spokesperson for the party. In contrast, Wright, my piece said, was a hack, a shill for oil and gas interests, and a slippery-sounding fellow who would not be a good “face” for the Democrats.

Wright became Speaker – and turned out to be remarkably effective. He got significant legislation through, including aid to the homeless, a raise of the speed limit to 65, and welfare reform. Most significant, he forced the Reagan Administration to engage in peace talks in Central America, a move that the administration denounced at the time as inappropriate congressional intervention – but which in hindsight they say was a crucially important and helpful step. He had unexpected statesmanship.

I felt terrible. Wright had given me a three hour interview (in part because he mistakenly thought I was with the Washingtonian Magazine). Truth is, he struck me as much more nuanced than I’d expected. But in hindsight, I had gone into the interview with a pre-conceived story line, and I didn’t let facts or fresh observations divert me. I felt like really I’d been unfair.

So I wrote Wright a note saying as much. And I apologized.

Three years later Wright resigned in disgrace.

Check it out and where Steve comes down today.

Personally, I have just one clear memory of Jim Wright. At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, I happened to be on the podium when Wright spoke, and he delivered a flawless performance. Only when he finished did he turn to the closest staffer and tear him a new one because the teleprompter had displayed the pithy remarks of Robert Byrd. Wright winged it and never missed a beat. Whatever his flaws, memory and presence of mind were not among them.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.