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Jim Wright's Capitol Punishment

June 04, 1989|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — Jim Wright was great political theater. These days our political discourse is usually reduced to 10-second sound bites and 30- second TV spots; politicians lob them at each other like hand grenades. On Wednesday, however, in a biblical display of righteous indignation, Wright took a full hour to defend his honor before the House of Representatives.

It was grand political speechifying in the brow-mopping, gallus-snapping tradition. For one last glorious moment, Wright of Texas was truly the Speaker of the House. "I'll tell you what," he said to his colleagues at the climax of his speech, "I'm going to make you a proposition. 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."

Wright sacrificed his career. Will the political gods be propitiated? Not likely. Wright called for an end to the "mindless cannibalism" of national politics. "It is grievously hurtful to our society," he said, "when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate, when negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation, when members of each party become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party."

Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), the man likely to succeed Wright as Speaker, calls it "politics by ethics inquiry." "There is almost a Roman games spirit abroad," Foley said. "You pick up the front page and see who has been devoured by the lions today." In his inaugural address, George Bush lamented "a certain divisiveness" in U.S. politics. Bush said: "We have seen the hard looks and heard the statements in which not each other's ideas are challenged, but each other's motives."

What everyone seems unhappy about is the use of ethics as a political weapon. But they will continue to use it. The reason is simple: It works. The Democrats succeeded in destroying a U.S. President on ethics charges in 1974. Now the GOP has used ethics to destroy a Speaker of the House.

Consider the 1988 presidential election. The two people who had the greatest influence on the outcome were Donna Rice and Willie Horton. It was the nastiest, most superficial campaign on record, and it drew one of the lowest voter turnouts in U.S. history. But every politician learned a lesson: negative campaigns work. Everybody hates them. But we're going to see more.

Politics follows the same rule as the entertainment industry. If it worked once, try it again. There will be another Wright just as surely as there will be another "Rocky." In fact, Jim Wright was the sequel to his own story. To everyone's surprise, House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Merced) quit before Wright did.

Democrats seem to be dropping like flies. Washington is deluged with rumors, and government is conducted in an atmosphere of suspicion. For example, Democrats were infuriated last week by Justice Department leaks concerning a possible investigation of Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), a candidate to succeed Coelho as whip. They assume the leaks were part of a GOP plot to "get" Gray.

The man most responsible for feeding the Democrats' paranoia is Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Gingrich was the man who dared to file ethics charges against the Speaker. He was rewarded this year when his Republican colleagues made him minority whip, the party's second-ranking leadership position. Two months ago, Gingrich predicted Wright would be out of office by June. Wright resigned May 31.

On television last month, Gingrich said, "I think the country is going to be further shocked when the news media digs deeper to discover that it doesn't stop with Coelho and Wright, that it goes on to more and more people--at least another nine or 10, maybe more than that." That sounds like McCarthyism--"I have here in my hand a list. . . ."

But it has the Democrats frightened. Gingrich has made no secret of his objective. He wants Republicans to get control of the House, where they have been the minority party for 35 years. The problem is that members of the House have become invulnerable. In the last two elections, 98% of incumbents won.

To frustrated Republicans, the Democratic majority has become encrusted and arrogant. The Republicans have tried everything to dislodge them. They try to attack Democrats on the issues--but the voters ignore the issues. They try to expose Democrats as liberals--but the voters discount the charges. GOP House candidates even tried to ride Ronald Reagan's coattails. But while Reagan swept a GOP majority into the Senate, he could never make headway in the House.

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