Press Box

Wright and Wrong and Cunningham

The WSJ’s editorial page’s long-term memory loss.

Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page title damns all to hell Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who yesterday pleaded guilty to taking bribes from defense contractors and resigned from Congress (see “Duke of the Beltway,” Nov. 29).

Two-thirds of the way through its spanking of Cunningham the Journal reaches back 16 years to assert a moral equivalence between him and Jim Wright, the disgraced speaker of the House who was driven from office in 1989 by his own scandal. The page writes:

Mr. Cunningham’s graft doesn’t mean that all Republicans are corrupt, any more than former Speaker Jim Wright’s machinations meant all Democrats were on the take.

The peculiar juxtaposition of “Cunningham’s graft” to “Wright’s machinations” suggests that the two pols’ misdeeds are somehow equivalent. But comparing Cunningham’s offenses to Wright’s is like comparing a Brink’s job with the looting of a Pez dispenser. Cunningham confessed to “evading taxes and conspiring to pocket $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and a 19th-century Louis-Philippe commode,” as the Washington Postreports today. He faces 10 years in prison.

Wright, on the other hand, made a sweetheart deal with a printer to publish a book of speeches that netted him $55,000. Wright wrongly lobbied the savings and loan regulators to go easy on two bank owners who ultimately went to prison for, among other things, fraud. Wright’s printer buddy put wife Betty Wright on the payroll where she did little or no work. These transgressions and others committed by Wright never translated into jail time. So, where’s the equivalence? Why bring Wright up now? Does the page have a guilty conscience about its central role in toppling him?

As for the Journal’s 2005 notion that Wright’s sins didn’t taint other Democrats, the same page took a very different view in 1988 and 1989, insisting that the speaker’s perfidy belonged to all Democrats, as these excerpts show.

Common Cause, a liberal watchdog group, called for an investigation last week of House Speaker Jim Wright’s tangled business dealings. The next day, House Democrats rose and gave the Speaker a standing ovation. These are the same House Democrats who demand that Attorney General Meese resign if the merest puff of ethical smoke blows out of the independent counsel’s office. But they are disinclined to look into the affairs of the man who is second in the line of presidential succession.—May 24, 1988While the Ethics Committee has been dithering over what to do about the Wright charges, one of its members, Vic Fazio of California, featured Speaker Wright at an unpublicized $500-a-plate fund-raiser in California last June 22. … [M]uch of the proceeds went to a program … which works to elect Democrats to state legislatures where they can preserve the gerrymandered districts that keep Messr. Wright and Fazio in power. … Last week the 177 House Republicans unanimously called on Mr. Fazio to step aside from the Wright investigation. … When reporters recently asked about his ethics problems, Jim Wright responded by announcing, “I am not a pariah.” Sure isn’t. You can see for yourself on national television.—July 19, 1988[H]ardly anyone expects the Democrats on this [bipartisan ethics] committee to vote for sanctions against the man they just re-elected as Speaker of the House. How could Jim Wright remain third in line for the presidency if the full House were asked to reprimand him? —Jan. 11, 1989Former Interior Secretary James Watt is excoriated for writing a letter to Sam Pierce asking special attention for a client. But Congresspersons write letters every day on behalf of constituents (we almost said contributors), interceding with agency heads, Pentagon officials and savings-and-loan regulators. They have been known to go even further, which is why former Speaker Wright and former Majority Whip Tony Coelho are no longer in the legislation business. … Jim Wright and Tony Coelho were doing favors for their friends in the thrift business by heading off efforts by federal regulators to shut down some of the worst operators. Maybe folks working for Sam Pierce thought they should be friendly to Jim Watt, a loyal Republican who had suffered hard times in Washington.—June 21, 1989Whatever the outcome of the [savings and loan] bailout bill itself, President Bush ought to insist that Congress not sweep aside the role that public officials and Members of Congress from Jim Wright, Tony Coelho and Alan Cranston on down played in creating the crisis.—Aug. 4, 1989Now that the investigation of Jim Wright is concluding, the House of Representatives, and especially its Democratic majority, is on public probation. If Democrats try to exonerate Mr. Wright and keep the Phelan report from public view or to short-circuit the disciplinary process, it will be obvious that Congress’s concern about ethics is hollow. It will be obvious that ethics is a disguised political weapon, designed to weaken the executive branch and to protect the political castle called Congress.—March 13, 1989

Every editorial page has a right to change its mind, of course. The page was edited by Robert Bartley back in 1988-89 and has been edited since 2002 by Paul Gigot, so maybe its sentiments about Wright’s corruption bleeding onto Democrats are now inoperative. So, too, might be its qualms about the dangers posed by the perpetual incumbency. On April 17, 1989, when Democrats held what looked like a permanent lock on the House and the Wright menace flared, the page fretted:

The real scandal is not Jim Wright’s book, but the entrenchment of incumbents in Congress. Districts are gerrymandered. Perhaps worse, every impulse toward campaign “reform” is twisted into another incumbent-protection device. Next year, Congress will spend $114 million to send self-promoting franked mail to voters. That is more than all the funds raised by all House and Senate challengers in the 1988 election. Unless some way can be found to restore competition, we will have to start thinking about limiting the number of terms Congressmen can serve.

The next day, April 18, the page repeated its fears about the connection between incumbency and corruption:

Washington has become ethically loose because it has become so politically flabby. The incumbency rate in the House is now 99%. Real politics, unlike Washington’s, includes real competition for an institution’s seats of power. It includes accountability, so that challengers can criticize their opponent’s votes. The current Washington system is designed to minimize these forces. No corporation or any other private institution could remain vibrant or viable for long without competition or accountability. Congress can’t either.

Now that Republican incumbents have squeezed the political competition out of Congress, does the Journal still equate political flabbiness with corruption?


You’ll notice that I avoided any cheap-shot remarks about the Jack Abramoff scandal. Keep your cheap shots coming to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)