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The Wright Way in Washington : A Semi-Political Visit With the First Family of the House

August 07, 1987|LOIS ROMANO | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — "It's a myth," Jim Wright mumbles, as he tries to duck out of his office for more coffee.

The subject is the Wright temper, notoriously quick and mean. The new speaker of the House made headlines a few years back by threatening to punch out Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) on the House floor, and he once asked Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to step outside because Stark had cursed at him. Another time he hurled a book at writer Larry L. King, who was then on his staff. And Betty Wright, his wife of 14 years, tells the story of how, shortly after they were married, her husband flung the contents of the freezer across the room because he couldn't get the door shut.

The flying food did no damage, however, and these days, Wright's mate has a reputation as the one person who can rein in the speaker's runaway rage.

"What's a myth?" she demands from across the room, eyes locked on her man, fingers tip-to-tip. "Your temper? Or that I'm a calming influence?"

"Well," he says like a little kid caught fibbing, "I'm working on it."

My very dearest Betty,

For 13 years we've shared this life

I the husband, you the wife;

I hope your life is richer than

The day on which this all began.

--Jim Wright, November 1985

Millie O'Neill she is definitely not.

The wife of the former House leader barely tolerated the capital. She never got involved in Tip O'Neill's job, didn't move here until he was in the leadership and then eschewed the congressional dash and dazzle, refusing interviews.

Betty Wright is happily defining her own Washington: choosing which boards to sit on (Ford's Theatre and the National Theatre), picking her projects and her friends. Her husband's office is quick to hand out her biography, and she's the one keeping a diary these days.

Still, it would be too easy to paint the House's first lady as just another ambitious Power Spouse. Like Nancy Reagan, she has certainly made her husband's career her crusade. And like Nancy Reagan, she also seems motivated more by fierce loyalty than by the needs of her own ego.

Shows Off Portrait

On this morning, before his wife joins him in his office for an interview, the speaker seems a little antsy. To pass the time, he shows off a portrait of Betty that hangs next to his desk. In the painting, she wears a lavender dress; soft curls hug her face.

At 62, she looks 42. "Tell her that, will ya?" Wright, 64, implores his guest. "She really takes good care of herself--dieting, exercise, no drinking. . . . It's not a religious thing or anything. She just doesn't drink."

When she comes in 30 minutes late, looking poised and stylish, he jumps up and brushes her cheek with his lips. She's wearing an Eleanor Brenner suit, trendy but elegant, royal blue with broad padded shoulders. On her left forefinger is a huge topaz ring he had made for her; she wears no wedding band. Her chocolate-brown hair is cropped close and her makeup is perfect.

She seems at home in his office and spends a lot of time there. He calls her "darlin'," and friends say he dotes on her. The two are often seen together around town, holding hands like lovers 40 years their junior.

Mixed Reviews

Indeed, Betty Wright's young-mindedness may prove one of her husband's greatest assets. Reviews on the new speaker have been mixed so far.

Wright's detractors say he lacks warmth and portray him as out of step with today's Congress--an old-style pol at heart, a pale imitation of his all-powerful Texas predecessor, Sam Rayburn. His flowery oratory seems more suited to stump campaigning than to television, and many Democrats cringed when Wright decided to deliver the response to this year's State of the Union address himself.

The speaker draws praise for being more action-oriented than the man he succeeded, Tip O'Neill. Yet he annoyed many colleagues when he stepped out front with a tax hike proposal the same day he got elected to the job.

So Jim Wright frets, concerned that "the young people" don't understand him, worried that the talk about his temper has gotten out of hand. Betty Wright is here to help with these nagging misperceptions. Together, they're out to soften Wright's hard edges, to reposition the man David Stockman called "a snake-oil vendor par excellence. "

Was a Boxing Coach

"Jim has another side," she says, settling into a chair. "They keep bringing that silly thing out, that he was a Golden Glove boxer. Now, that doesn't mean you're a fighter by profession."

"I was a scoutmaster and I was a boxing coach," he explains. "In a town like Weatherford (Tex.), they give you all these free jobs."

In a later interview, she shows off the poetry he's written for her and talks about the landscapes he's painted: "He is a romantic, very artistic." He even shops for her, she says. For Valentine's Day, he gave her a little gold heart and a crystal teddy bear.

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