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Moves on Taxes, Contras : Activist Wright Takes Risks in Job of Speaker

January 04, 1988|KAREN TUMULTY and SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In his first year as Speaker of the House, Jim Wright has boldly led House Democrats into uncharted political territory, often charging ahead before they are ready to follow.

The 65-year-old Texas Democrat has scored at least one stunning political victory: He has forced Ronald Reagan to back down from his stand against higher taxes, making it much more difficult for Republicans to use the issue again as a campaign weapon in 1988.

Brings Discipline

Most Democrats also agree that the Speaker has brought badly needed discipline to the House's day-to-day operations. He can boast that, in one year, the House has acted on most of his ambitious agenda, which ranged from rebuilding roads to providing aid to the homeless to changing the rules on international trade.

"Our success in this past year has been tremendous," crows Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), assistant House majority leader and one of Wright's chief lieutenants.

But in other areas where Wright has taken the lead, he may have gone too far--particularly in his unorthodox decision to play a key role in Central American peace negotiations, against the advice of Coelho and others.

"Wright is a practitioner of high-risk politics," said political scholar Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "This is high risk, and I think in the end it's a foolish risk. Foolish for himself, foolish for his party, foolish for the country."

Although it has yet to be seen whether his initiatives with Nicaraguan leaders will be recorded as a triumph or a blunder, Democrats are concerned that Wright's tendency to move ahead on only his own instincts will inevitably lead to a serious misstep.

Says one uneasy Democrat, who asked not to be identified: "He goes out front and hopes the troops will follow him. Thus far, I think the jury is out on whether that strategy is going to work. I think some of it is good. Maybe too much of it is not. It's only his first year."

Some Democrats fear that Wright--whose bushy eyebrows and flowery rhetoric prompted former Budget Director David A. Stockman to liken him to a "snake oil salesman"--creates a sleazy and even sinister image for the party whenever he appears on television as the Democrats' chief spokesman.

They also worry about the questions that have been raised about Wright's personal integrity. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has publicly called him "the most unethical Speaker of the 20th Century." Scrutiny has centered on Wright's lobbying on behalf of ailing Texas savings and loan associations and his financial relationships with some of his political backers in Fort Worth.

Wright hotly denies that he has done anything improper and dismisses Gingrich as "a gnat." In October, he put his financial assets, then valued at about $185,000, into a blind trust.

Still, the ethics issue has continued to dog the Speaker. "That's probably the area of greatest concern. There's an undercurrent there, and a sense that it's potentially dangerous," says a Democrat, also speaking on a guarantee of anonymity. "Of course, no one talks about it. It's not the kind of thing you talk about."

Can Handle the Heat

As the controversy around him grows, Wright contends that he can handle the heat: "I asked to be assigned to the kitchen," he says in his slow drawl.

The Speaker claims to want a harmonious relationship with Ronald Reagan, but he clearly sees himself as Reagan's chief adversary, the Democrats' commanding officer in a winner-take-all battle to set the nation's priorities.

Wright says of his first year as Speaker: "There are times when a leader has to get out front. It's the difference between the group commander who flies in the lead plane over the enemy target and the one who stays back at group headquarters."

Not surprisingly, and perhaps in backhanded tribute to Wright's effectiveness, the other side is returning the fire.

Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. describes Wright as "the most divisive and blatantly partisan Speaker the House of Representatives has seen in a long, long time. . . . His ambition is exceeded only by his ego and his desire for power."

Called Machiavellian

Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) calls Wright "Machiavellian" and says: "I think he is a slick operator who, when forced to chose between power and image, he takes power."

From the outset, it was clear that Wright would be a dramatic change from retiring Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), whose intensely personal approach to leadership usually began with putting his large arm around the shoulders of a fellow lawmaker. O'Neill rarely moved on an issue until he knew that he had a solid consensus of Democrats behind him.

Although few Democrats regard Wright with the warmth they felt for the affable, bear-like O'Neill, many say they were ready for a more aggressive leader--one who could recognize and capitalize on the inevitable waning of a lame-duck President.

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