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Is Civility Dead?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1996
Balance of Power: Presidents and Congress from the Era of McCarthy to the Age of Gingrich. By Jim Wright, former Speaker of the House. Turner Publishing, $25.95.

There is a difference between a political scholar and a practitioner. A scholar collects and analyzes events, theorizes and draws conclusions that are capable of generalizations. A practitioner may look at the same series of events and will place himself in them and in relation to the cast of characters. He may, modestly or not, take credit for the outcome or, mea culpa, show regret at temporary failures or disastrous outcomes. Jim Wright’s book falls in the latter category and, when reviewed as such, it stands high among recent political autobiographies. There are few analytic conclusions about power, its origins, development, and usages, but one can continually see these aspects as the story is told. The reader interested in history and politics is repeatedly engrossed, especially as personages living or recently departed occupy center stage. Outrage becomes the chief reaction to see worthy goals blocked, and how personal snits have impact on important decisions, and how obscenely expensive projects are pushed through in spite of legitimate objections. Outrage, because the end of the book is not the end of the story. Like the tales of Scheherazade, we realize that it goes on and on “even as we speak.”

The writer of political “history” has great advantages in the resources available for research. When Rosalyn Carter made it known that she was embarking on her autobiography, The Lady from Plains, she was surprised one morning to see trucks pulling up to her house full of papers, files, tapes, and copies of records of all types. As she said, at a Book and Author luncheon at a Washington hotel, “In the White House nothing goes unrecorded,” not telephone conversations, not hallway conversations, not meetings of every group—it is all there for posterity.

A similar resource must undoubtedly have been available from Capitol Hill for Wright as he wrote this book. In apparently exact detail, conversations are reconstructed, and the sequence of events unfold to include issues once alive but long forgotten. Reading the book is like reliving the events and going behind the scenes of news from 1953, the time of the Eisenhower administration, to 1995, the Clinton administration. Included, of course, are the twists and turns of Congress and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and the emergence of Clinton. The four decades which span the time of these presidents saw great changes sweep the country. Many were positive, like moon and space exploration, a revolution in race relations, and the end of the Cold War. Wright notes, “On the darker side, we’ve seen the diminution of civility, the rise of drugs and crime, the growth of adversary journalism, the loss of comity in our political structures, a mean-spirited magnification of negative campaigning, and the galloping dependence upon big money in our political system.” He did his research on “civility,” which means more than to be civilized. Its original Latin form signified “the art of government.”

Wright’s perspective on all this is that of a participant, not an onlooker. He doesn’t pretend that this is an objective book, if such a thing were possible. He does promise, however, “. . . I’ll tell the truth—as I saw it—about people and events that contributed to the major national decisions of the past forty years.” His special interest is the interplay between Congress and presidents, which often became intensely personal. This struggle, to accommodate diverse philosophies and strong, conflicting personalities, is the dynamic business of our democracy. The book thus becomes almost a textbook, with lively personal slants, of the science and art of politics.

He found things to admire in all of the presidents, even those from the opposing political party. But as he relates the Byzantine efforts to pass legislature, initiated by first one party and then the other, the gulf separating the liberals and conservatives becomes ever more apparent. His admiration is often tinged with dismay, and certain betrayals leave him “nonplussed. Flabbergasted!”

He became speaker of the House in January 1987, at a time that the government faced four problems of critical proportion: a budget deficit, a trade deficit, a growing social deficit consisting of unmet domestic needs, and a threatened constitutional crisis arising from the Iran-Contra revelations. For two-and-a-half years as Speaker, he says, he felt “like a boxer kept off balance by repetitive left jabs in the face, or a quarterback repeatedly forced to dodge onrushing tacklers before he could spot an open receiver. Being Speaker . . .was like trying to play chess and table tennis simultaneously.”

The book relates the details, for 470 pages, of the job of being first, a congressman from Texas with ever increasing assignments and positions of importance up to and including speaker of the House of Representatives, and then with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, it takes only ten pages to describe his downfall and resignation. The similarity to current affairs is startling, with even some of the characters identical. Newt Gingrich figured importantly in the manoeuvres. Wright states that daily leaks were orchestrated by Gingrich and his clique, artfully distracting the media from focusing on the congressional agenda. Wright was told that the opposing crowd, remembering the downfall of their Republican colleague, John Tower, now wanted “a Texan for a Texan!”

The full story of the systematic orchestration by a busy conservative cabal of a series of attacks and harassments aimed at putting Wright on the defensive and keeping him off balance is told in a book by John Barry, The Ambition and the Power: The Fall of Jim Wright.One example: a full-time staffer in Gingrich’s office, for more than a year, spent her time calling people in Wright’s hometown and elsewhere seeking negative information, fact, or rumor, of any sort that could be peddled to a newspaper or converted into some further inquiry by the House Ethics Committee. This was the first time since the Ethics Committee’s creation that its internal workings were being politicized from outside the process.

As is so often the case, news stories would break, but by the time Wright got a declaration that the accusation was a fraud, the damage had been done.

For the benefit of the current political scene, a portion of Jim Wright’s resignation speech given on May 31, 1989, to the House could well be remembered:

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, in God’s name that is not what this institution is supposed to be about! When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication, and 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 is unworthy of our institution, unworthy of our American political process. All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end! There has been enough of it.

Wright’s final chapter, “The Kind of America We Want,” could well become a text for a unit in political science in schools. Taking as his premise that “Politics is not a four letter word,” he outlines the dangers facing America today, such as hate, which he sees spreading through the halls of Congress and into public life; campaign financing which in Wright’s personal experience had risen from $32,000 in 1954 to nearly a million dollars in 1980; the ever widening spread between the richest and the poorest in our country, with the steady diminution of the once-broad middle-income sector. A further danger he sees is that we are falling farther and farther behind in the maintenance of infrastructure, so that roads, airports, bridges, pipes, wires, dams, and public buildings are all about to become too deteriorated to find funding for their repair. He cites also education and pejorative attitudes toward government. For each of these, rather than simply a listing, he has his own suggestions for action.

Jim Wright is a writer of compelling talent which he used to good advantage on the job in writing position papers, new legislation, and persuasive messages to friend and foe alike. In this book, he takes the reader through eventful years of our government in such a way that whether we are in his party or not, we can, like him, make an attempt to rise above partisanship and listen to what he has to say.


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