“When America was fighting the most just of causes…outstanding men anticipated the nation’s call and the people embraced them and adopted them as their leaders.”
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
When former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Jim Wright passed away, the country lost one of its greatest statesmen, orators and civil servants. While his visible legacy in 2015 is unfortunately the regulations of the Wright Amendment, he stood and fought for so much more in his career.
I have a unique perspective on Speaker Jim Wright, being able to take the very last course he taught at Texas Christian University. He taught Congress and the Presidents from the early 1990s until 2010. His once-piercing oratory diminished to a stilted gasp from multiple cancer operations, he held court in a lecture hall with as much confidence as he held on the floor of the House.
It was through Speaker Wright’s class that I wrote a semester research project on House Speaker John McCormack and learned about the old guard in the House of Representatives. The coalition that formed around FDR’s New Deal legislation produced some of the greatest moments and leaders in American government.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a child of hardscrabble farmers in Bonham, Texas, brought his populist roots to the halls of government. Lyndon Johnson used his legislative prowess to orchestrate the most productive sessions of Congress in American history. In sum, the 1930s through the 1960s witnessed new regulations on finance, public utilities, agriculture, the environment, civil rights and voting rights. Social programs for retirees, youth, the food insecure, the uninsured — the entire framework of the role of modern government — came from the New Deal coalition.
In foreign policy, a Cold War consensus pushed the growth of the military, the defense industry and involvement in proxy conflicts around the globe against the Soviet Union. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower were the general-statesmen of the time: brilliant strategists who dedicated their later years to the craft of policymaking. John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage in the 1950s as a Pulitzer Prize-winning tribute to historical American leaders of principle and purpose. American politics, society and culture reached the great apex of achievement that would all start to unravel in the late 1960s.
Jim Wright grew up on the knee of the New Deal, and of its Populist heritage. He extended the legacy of the New Deal coalition in the United States House of Representatives all the way to 1990, one of the last lonely flag-bearers of a generation of distinguished statesmen. It is no accident that many of these icons of the traditional style of governance were World War II veterans. The last of these heroes exited the House in 2014.
I do not deny our many national blemishes (as some do) in the times of Jim Wright. Yet for all our progress of the last decades we have suffered equally from the wounds of rancor and partisanship. Jim Wright is an emblem and icon of the Greatest Generation to have blessed the leadership and structure of American society with peace, justice and prosperity:
“Now there just isn’t an ounce of sense in [the U.S. and U.S.S.R.] horsing around and acting like plain fools and arranging things so that our kids will have to be killing each other someday. My kids are thinking about Christmas, Ivan. Little starry-eyed things, they’re not mad at you or anybody.”
-Letter to Ivan, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1958