Jim Wright – the unctuous, “disgraced,” and recently departed former House Speaker – received my first professional apology.
And it haunted me for years.
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.
He was caught using the sale of his books as a back-door way to fill his pockets. He became the first Speaker to step down amidst scandal.
So it turned out he was a hack after all! Just not in the way I’d predicted. I weighed what to do. Can I retract an apology note? Should I write him saying ‘disregard previous message’? Maybe this is why journalists don’t often apologize to public officials, I figured. Even if they were unfairly criticized, the pols are bound to do something eventually that will retroactively justify our scorn.
But I ended up letting my apology stand because even though Wright turned out to be a poor choice for speaker, it wasn’t at all for the reasons I’d predicted. And it didn’t change the basic fact that I’d gone in with a rigid story-angle, which warped my writing and sense of fairness.
I was happy to see that the obituary for Wright was nuanced. Though the headline in the New York Times headline was “Jim Wright Dies at 92; House Speaker Resigned Amid Ethics Charges,” they reviewed some of his accomplishments, giving him significant credit for bringing peace to Central America. And they included this fascinating quote from the man who brought down Wright, Newt Gingrich: “If he survives this ethics thing, he may become the greatest speaker since Henry Clay.”
These and the other articles written upon his death showed a more complex, interesting man. Perhaps we reporters should adopt the obituary-writers’ sensibility when we’re writing about people who are alive.