Wright, victim of Gingrich in 1989, not gloating now Ex-speaker says he foresaw his successor's downfall

November 12, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT WORTH, Texas -- With the resignation of the second House speaker in a decade, the first is hoping that historians will come to see him as prophetic, rather than fallen and sullied.

But Jim Wright, a Democrat who resigned as speaker in 1989 after an ethics investigation triggered by Newt Gingrich, did not exult now that Gingrich is leaving.

"It would ill become me to gloat or to say, 'I'm glad you're gone, you rascal, you,' " he said during an interview at his office on the campus of Texas Christian University. That is the sort of behavior he decries, he said.

But Wright did recall his warning in his resignation speech on the House floor that Gingrich would be consumed by his own "mindless cannibalism."

Echoing comments he made in a book several years ago, Wright said Gingrich "reminds me of an arsonist who sets fire to his building without stopping to realize the flames are going to consume his own apartment."

Wright also noted that in notifying Republicans Friday that he was resigning, Gingrich said, "I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."

An optimistic outlook

Wright said the results of last week's election and the likely choice of Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana as the next speaker give him confidence that a more constructive tone will prevail.

Judging from the comments of friends who served with Livingston on the Appropriations Committee, Wright said, "I have the impression that Bob Livingston will be more an agent of unity than polarization."

Wright said he thought his resignation -- like Gingrich, he quit the leadership and Congress -- would be cathartic and that civility and collegiality would be restored.

"But you might as well have been trying to siphon off the Gulf of Mexico with an eyedropper," he said.

Instead, what followed were budget disputes that shut down the government, campaigns that became sharply negative and accusations that took the place of improving health care or education.

Wright, 75, contrasted Gingrich's outrage and hyperbole -- he repeatedly called Wright "a crook" and "the most corrupt House speaker of the 20th century" -- with his restraint, even self-deprecation. He calls himself "an ersatz columnist and an ersatz professor," given his light writing and teaching loads for the local newspaper and the college.

Ethics charges

Wright resigned after the House ethics committee charged him with 69 ethics violations. He was accused of improperly taking gifts from a developer who had a direct interest in legislation and using sales of an earlier book, "Reflections of a Public Man," to lobbyists and supporters to circumvent restrictions on outside income.

Wright said he hopes that historians who review his 7,000-word departure speech and the documents he submitted for the record will agree that he broke no laws or House rules.

Wright's assistant, Norma Ritchson, said Wright showed sympathy for Gingrich. "Poor man," she quoted Wright as saying this week. "He must feel bad."

Wright didn't remember putting it quite so warmly. "I didn't weep. I didn't shed tears," Wright said. "But, hey, we're all in this together."

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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