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Wright Resigns, Urges End to This 'Mindless Cannibalism' : Speaker Declares Innocence in Impassioned House Speech

June 01, 1989|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Still protesting his innocence while beseeching Congress to "bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end," Jim Wright (D-Tex.) announced Wednesday that he would resign from the House and become the first Speaker in history to be forced out of office.

With tears filling his eyes, the Texas Democrat told his colleagues in a powerful, hourlong speech from the well of the chamber that it had become apparent Congress would not be able to turn fully to the nation's problems before it until the long ethics investigation of his finances is resolved.

"Well, I'll tell you what," Wright said near the end of an oration that had held members in rapt silence. "Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown up among us. Give it back to you.

". . . I don't want to be a party to tearing up this institution--I love it."

Taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes, Wright said in a choked-up voice: "You need--you need somebody else."

Wright's dramatic abdication, anticipated for the last week, apparently ends a yearlong Ethics Committee inquiry that had produced 69 charges of rules violations against the Speaker and clears the way for the election of Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) to the Speaker's post next Tuesday.

It caps an extraordinary period of less than a week in which another top House Democrat, Rep. Tony Coelho of Merced, has resigned as majority whip over questions about his finances; reports about an FBI investigation of the Democratic caucus leader have surfaced and allegations and rumors about other members have swept through Congress.

Amid indications that partisans now are primed for an open bloodletting to avenge scores on both sides, the Speaker, a 34-year veteran of the House, appealed for an end to the wave of ethics attacks with his departure.

"In God's name, that's not what this institution is supposed to be all about," he declared.

"When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication, harsh personal attacks upon one another's motives and one another's character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate on important issues . . . . Surely that's unworthy of our institution, unworthy of our American political process," he said.

At the conclusion of the address, in which at times he roared with fury and at others whispered in a voice barely audible, the chamber erupted into a lengthy standing ovation.

While some Democrats lavished praise on him and expressed sympathy for his predicament, most clearly had been impatient for him to step down.

The elevation of the more conciliatory Foley--with his unsmirched reputation and wide popularity among Republicans as well as members of his own party--would be a relief from the controversies swirling around Wright.

Caucus to Select Successor

Wright said that he would serve as Speaker until the Democratic caucus chooses his successor at a session Tuesday. He said that he would resign his House seat representing a Ft. Worth district by the end of June.

Since the ethics panel investigating his affairs cannot proceed against a former member, his move means that the charges now pending against him will become moot. Had he chosen to continue his fight against the charges, a bitter showdown on the House floor would have been virtually inevitable.

In London, President Bush broke his silence on the Speaker's case by issuing a brief statement recalling their years of friendship.

"In spite of the present situation, I believe the Wright tenure was one of effectiveness and dedication to the Congress of the United States," the President said. "And I recognize his distinguished service to the people of his congressional district. Barbara and I wish Jim and Betty well in whatever lies ahead."

The Speaker, widely credited with helping end the fighting in Nicaragua by pushing for a cutoff in military aid to the anti-Communist rebels, said that his two years and five months as presiding officer of the House was one of the most productive in recent history.

In the end, Wright agreed with most of his fellow Democrats by concluding that he no longer could lead effectively on important legislation because of the attention focused on what he called his "petty personal finances."

The ethics panel's decision by a 12-0 vote to issue a "statement of alleged violations" against Wright last April 17 started the erosion of his standing that had accelerated in recent weeks. He was accused of accepting improper gifts from a Ft. Worth business partner who had interest in legislation and of scheming to evade House limits on outside income through bulk sales of his 1986 book, "Reflections of a Public Man."

In addition, the ethics panel was reported to be ready to vote on whether to pursue additional charges against him. A disclosure that his top aide, John R. Mack, had been convicted of a vicious hammer-and-knife attack on a young woman in 1972, also provoked criticism. Mack has since resigned his post.

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