Southwestern Hzstorical Quarterly
The Ambition and the Power. By John M. Barry. (New York: Viking, 1989.
Pp. 768. Prologue, epilogue, methodology and acknowledgments. $22.95.)
John Barry has written an account of the Speakership of Jim Wright. He
places Wright's Speakership and his resignation within the overall context of
Congressional politics during the Reagan era. There is much that is valuable in
this work. Still, in some respects, it is disappointing. The book is for a popular
audience, so historians and political scientists will be discouraged by the ab-
sence of reference to most scholarly writing, by the absence of an index, and by
its largely descriptive and atheoretical focus. The general reader will be dis-
couraged by the book's overemphasis on detail. We do not, for example, need
to know that Jim Wright dislikes cold cereal and skim milk for breakfast, and
we certainly don't need to be told that multiple times. Viking Press should be
faulted for not editing the book more thoroughly. The book is too long and too
detailed. A book that was well edited and half this volume's length would have
been a much more effective presentation of Jim Wright's Speakership. There
are also some factual errors in the book that should have been identified and
corrected. Sam Rayburn, for example, though never wealthy, did not die "pen-
niless," and it is common for black politicians to have political ideologies that
are other than "radical."
Nevertheless, in spite of the problems of writing style, lack of theory, and
some factual errors, there is considerable value in this work. Jim Wright and
others gave Barry almost total access. Even Wright's nemesis, Newt Gingrich,
was very cooperative with Barry. As a result, Barry was in a unique position to
observe the fall of Wright's Speakership.
In at least three areas, Barry's observations are fascinating and of great value
to scholars. First, he is extremely effective in explaining how Gingrich influ-
enced the media against Wright and how Wright and his staff seemed incapa-
ble of responding to the negative publicity. In essence, Barry shows that those
with great power can be so powerful that they become powerless to respond to
personal assaults. Second, Barry provides valuable insights into the personality
of Jim Wright. He presents Wright as a brilliant, driven, task-oriented leader.
He is a man who wants to get his way and is very effective in getting it. Wright is
a man of little patience, and he is willing to discard process for results. He is a
man who is far too quick to anger. Wright is deeply concerned about his lack of
wealth, so concerned about having little money that he allows his desire for
wealth to interfere with good judgment. Wright's role model was Sam Rayburn,
but his behavior puts one more in mind of a less cautious Lyndon Johnson.
Barry also presents a portrait of Jim Wright in personal crisis-a man in de-
spair during the ethics committee investigation. The man-of-action became de-
spondent and ineffectual as a result of a continual pattern of negative news
leaks and stories. Third, Barry offers an exceptionally powerful criticism of
prosecutor Richard Phelan and the House Ethics Committee. Barry shows the
extraordinary lack of balance in Phelan's presentation of charges against
Wright and the inability and unwillingness of the Ethics Committee to provide
a fair assessment of Wright's ethical problems.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 95, July 1991 - April, 1992. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117153/. Accessed May 4, 2015.