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Former House speaker Jim Wright dead at 92

Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright speaks to visitors at his office on the TCU campus on May 5, 2014 in Fort Worth,Texas. Wright died Wednesday, May 6, 2015 after a lengthy illness. He was 92.

RON JENKINS, FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/TNS

By CATALINA CAMIA | USA Today | Published: May 6, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Former House speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat who decried the "mindless cannibalism" of Congress as he resigned under pressure in 1989, died early Wednesday. He was 92 years old.

Wright's death was confirmed by a Texas Democratic source and Thompson's Harveson & Cole funeral home. Wright, a Democrat had battled various ailments late in his life, including two bouts of cancer.

Wright, who served in Congress for 34 years, was the first House speaker in history to step down because of an ethics scandal. He was charged with violating House rules on gifts and outside income, stemming from royalties he received from a book deal.

Republican Newt Gingrich, who would become speaker in 1995, doggedly pursued the accusations against Wright, who remained critical of his nemesis long after he left Washington.

The Texan insisted that the charges against him were baseless and he never conceded to any wrongdoing. The attack by Gingrich was foreign to Wright, who believed in the mantra taught to him by fellow Texan and legendary House speaker Sam Rayburn: "If you want to get along, go along."

In the end, Wright's resignation marked a turning point for Congress and signaled the start of an era in which partisan rancor and incivility became the norm.

"Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all this season of bad will that has grown up among us," Wright said in 1989 as he announced his resignation. His departure, he said, would serve as "total payment for the anger and hostility" for an ethical storm then raging on Capitol Hill.

In some ways, what started with Wright never ended.

Gingrich, his longtime foe, was forced to resign amid a rebellion from the GOP rank-and-file after a poor showing in the 1998 midterm elections. The Georgian had his own ethics scandal and would become the first speaker reprimanded by the House for ethical wrongdoing.

Twenty-five years after Wright resigned, he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2014 that he probably shouldn't have quit and "may have made a gross misjudgment" that the rancor in Congress would end when he was gone.

"I think I probably would not have retired," Wright said in the 2014 interview. "I think I would have seen it through and gone through the ignominy of having it (the charges against him) heard and addressed."

James Claude Wright Jr. was born in Fort Worth and earned a two-year degree at Weatherford College. He transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, but left school to volunteer for military service after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II, Wright was a bombardier in the U.S. Army and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross while serving in the South Pacific.

Wright returned to Texas after the war and began a business career in Weatherford, outside of Fort Worth. He served in Texas Legislature and was elected for the first time to Congress in 1954.

As a congressman, Wright developed power through his service on the House Public Works Committee, whose members helped push him up the Democratic leadership ladder.

In 28 months as House speaker Wright pushed legislation on trade, health care, raising the minimum wage and ending aid to rebels in Nicaragua known as the contras.

He was known in Texas as the author of the Wright Amendment, a 1979 law aimed at protecting the then-fledgling Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The law effectively restricted flights to and from Love Field, the airport near downtown Dallas, to smaller, regional airports. That meant cross-country and international flights would leave from DFW.

Congress passed a law in 2006 that eased the Wright Amendment's restrictions in stages, which were lifted entirely in 2014.

After leaving Congress, Wright gave speeches and wrote books. He taught political science at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and, for a while, wrote a column for the Fort Worth newspaper.

In 1996 Wright had surgery for tongue cancer. That experience was challenging for a man who loved big words and it forced him to learn again how to speak clearly. Then in 2009, cancer was found in Wright's jawbone and he had to have surgery to replace it using bone matter from one of his legs.

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