"Anyone who needs help - he's going to get into it," says one of Wright's many ardent local fans, black community activist Viola Pitts, who keeps four pictures of him on her walls.
Lately, that inclination to help has gotten Wright into one of the most serious controversies ever to confront the nation's Speaker of the House.
Urged on by one of Wright's chief political enemies, Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and the Common Cause citizens' lobbying group, members of the House ethics panel have agreed to look into allegations that Speaker Wright has long used his influence to help not only constituents, but also friends and business associates - and himself.
The allegations accuse Wright of entering a kickback-type book printing deal with a longtime political adviser; of improperly intervening on behalf of a Fort Worth oil family with whom he has financial connections; of using undue influence to help out Texas savings and loan executives accused of fraudulent practices; of improperly accepting a rent-free apartment from the son of a Fort Worth business partner.
Wright's way of doing business, said Gingrich, "creates a wheeler-dealer network of power and favors that threatens the fabric of honest government."
To Texans, though, such charges are old news. Wright's name has been linked in the Texas press with those and other controversies for years, starting with the still-unsolved murder of an early political opponent in 1948. (Though police never connected Wright to the crime, publicity about the murder apparently caused one of his very few election losses.)
Wright's supporters in Texas, as well as most Democrats nationwide, dismiss the newly aired allegations as a Republican ploy designed to divert public attention from the Reagan administration's "sleaze factor."
"It's the biggest political scam I can think of - a Republican effort to erase some of the scandals that have crept up around Reagan figures over the years," said Mack Williams, a retired Fort Worth publisher who, before Wright chose printer William Carlos Moore for the job, had also offered to print the congressman's controversial new book, Reflections of a Public Man.
The congressman has denied repeatedly that he has done anything improper. But he did sound a slightly contrite note last month at the state Democratic convention in Houston. There, Wright told a crowd waving "Give 'Em Hell, Jim" signs that Democrats sometimes "make mistakes, but not ones that are cold-hearted."
The same convention cheered former Democratic Gov. Mark White when he called Wright a man of "honor and courage and decency." Wright is a politician with wildly bushy eyebrows and a florid speaking style. When he was elected by fellow members of Congress to the powerful Speaker's post in January 1987, upon the retirement of Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., he was virtually unknown to the public.
But in Texas, Wright was long known as an astute politician who knew how to go along, get ahead and help his district every step of the way.
NAMED BY RAYBURN
First arriving in Congress in 1955, Wright was appointed to the House Public Works Committee by fellow Texan and then-Speaker Sam Rayburn. From that post, wrote the liberal journal Texas Observer, Wright was able to "drag . . . every last slab of bacon he could from the congressional smokehouse to his constituents in Tarrant County."
Defense contracts, public work projects and lately a piece of the U.S. Mint came to the people of Texas and Fort Worth.
Wright was also able to help the favored projects of fellow congressmen, and by 1976 he had enough backing to narrowly win election as majority leader. That was a natural stepping-stone to the Speaker's post, and Wright cemented the votes he needed by raising money for other Democratic congressional candidates through the Majority Congress Committee, Wright's own political action committee (PAC).
In 1985-86, the critical period of his campaign for the Speaker's job, Wright's PAC handed out $392,000 to five Democratic senatorial candidates and to 136 candidates for the House.
Back home, Wright has had little trouble getting re-elected, but he has raised impressive campaign funds and campaigned with a passion just the same.
In 1986, running against an underfinanced Republican underdog named Don McNiel, Wright collected nearly $900,000 in campaign contributions and plastered his district with 33,000 campaign signs.
Those he purchased from Fort Worth printer and one-time Teamsters official William Carlos Moore, who has received about $600,000 over the past 15 years for campaign work he has done for his longtime friend, Wright.
In 1983 or 1984, according to Wright, Moore approached him with the idea of printing the Reflections book.
It was Moore's first book-publishing venture, and he offered the congressman a good deal: 55 percent of the book sale proceeds for Wright, 45 percent for Moore. (The usual percentage for authors is 10 to 15 percent, according to commercial book publishers.)
Over the next three years, Moore says he was able to sell 21,000 copies of the slim $5.95 paperback, which includes brief essays about public and private life, as well as one original Wright poem - "Thoughts on a Mexican Sunset."
Wright, who has written several other books, reports that he has made $55,600 on this book so far. House investigators have been asked by Gingrich and Common Cause to look at whether Wright funneled campaign funds to Moore and got some of it back through the generous book deal. Wright has said no campaign funds have been used in publishing or purchasing the books.
The marketing of Reflections has raised questions, too. Moore, the printer, found several buyers willing to purchase up to 1,000 copies at a time.
One bulk buyer was the New England Life Insurance Co.; an official there told the Washington Post that the company purchased 336 of the books instead of paying Wright a speech honorarium after discussions with a longtime Wright aide who now lobbies for the firm. (Earnings from honoraria are restricted by the House; Wright successfully argued years ago that those same restrictions shouldn't apply to book royalties.)
Other bulk buyers included S.G. Payte, a Fort Worth developer and longtime Wright supporter who bought 1,000 copies, and the Teamsters Union, which bought 2,000 copies of the book at the urging of Charles Haddock, a Dallas Teamsters official.
Teamsters attorney Stan Brand last week confirmed published reports that the union's PAC spent $6,100 for 1,000 of the books on two occasions and that one of those purchases came shortly after the Teamsters PAC also donated $10,000 to Wright's re-election committee.
Haddock said in a telephone interview that his recollection of the matter was that Moore, whom he has known for at least 25 years, approached him about buying the books. The purchase was not intended as a way of currying favors with Wright, Haddock said.
"I felt reasonably sure Jim would be Speaker of the House," said Haddock, who heads a Dallas Teamsters local and the union's Texas conference. "My full intent on these books was to put the story on Jim Wright before members so they knew who he was."
The books were passed out at Teamsters meetings and events, he said.
Developer Payte said he feels strongly that members of Congress do not earn a high enough salary to maintain separate households in Washington and their home districts.
In an interview at his Fort Worth office, he said he bought the books at the urging of Moore, whom he knows, and did so expressly to contribute to Wright's income.
"If anything can come out of this, I hope it will be a raise for our federal employees," Payte said.
For his part, the outgoing, garrulous Moore said in a phone interview last week that anyone who suggests there is any "hanky-panky" associated with the book arrangement "in my judgment is on alcohol or dope; he ought to have his head examined.
"I have never in my life been around anything more innocent than the publication or selling of this book for Jim Wright," said the printer. Controversy over the 55-45 earnings split with Wright is misplaced, he said. ''(It's) these big publishing companies in New York who are screwing writers to death" with their low payments, he said.
Moore said that because of the controversy over the book, "I don't sleep well at night. . . . It's played hell with my business.
"My personal business judgment tells me I could (now) put a million copies (of Wright's book) on the street and they'd be gone in 10 days," he said. But he probably won't do that, he added.
Wright and Moore became friends in 1954, when Moore was a printer for the Fort Worth Press and Wright was first running for Congress. One Fort Worth political observer describes Moore today as Wright's local "eyes and ears."
Moore was lauded in the mid-1960s for his skillful political organizing of poor spinach-packers in south Texas. Later, though, after being promoted to a post in Washington under then Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, Moore was convicted of tax evasion for using Teamster PAC funds to make illegal cash contributions to political candidates.
Moore isn't the only long-time friend and business associate of Wright under scrutiny in the House ethics probe. Investigators also will be looking at Wright's connections with the wealthy Moncrief family of Fort Worth, who are in the oil business, as well as at his former partnership with well-known Fort Worth developer George Mallick.
In March 1979, according to a Wright account released to reporters, the congressman approached both Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on behalf of Richard Moncrief, a friend of Wright's. The oilman was worried that Egyptians would take over a costly Moncrief oil exploration venture in the Sinai Peninsula once the land in question was handed over to Egypt by Israel; that eventually happened anyway, despite Wright's intervention.
The Speaker said he considers the Moncriefs "my friends, as well as good citizens and valued constituents." It was "entirely proper," Wright said, for him to assist Richard Moncrief as a constituent in Wright's district.
Also in early 1979, Wright accepted an invitation by the Moncrief family to invest in two speculative gas-drilling ventures in East Texas. According to an account provided by Wright's office, Wright spent $65,146 in the two ventures and did not make a profit.
"This was strictly a business investment," Wright said. "There was no quid pro quo. My money was at risk, (along with that of) numerous other investors."
In another business arrangement, Wright and George Mallick and the men's wives became business partners in 1979 when they formed an investment company together. The speaker severed the business relationship in late 1987 in the face of newspaper stories that raised questions about the partnership - stories that Wright blamed on "poison pen operators."
It was Page One news in Fort Worth in early 1987 when Mallick became manager of a private project aimed at revitalizing Fort Worth's stockyards area. Mallick and five of his adult children became executives in the project; they were hired not long after Wright had secured $7.5 million in federal development grant money for the stockyards area. The Mallicks withdrew from the project in less than a year after a disagreement with other partners.
House probers will be looking into the fact that one of the Mallick children, Steven, had for years provided the speaker with a condominium whenever he was in town.
At first offered for free, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, it was later rented to the congressman for $21 a day, when he used it. George Mallick has said the arrangement grew out of the business association the two
families had together.
Wright told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last year that he had only a civic interest in providing the federal grant money to the project area.
"There is no way on God's earth I could profit to the degree of one penny (in the project)," Wright was quoted as saying. He added that he did not know of his business partner Mallick's involvement.
House probers also will be looking into whether Wright used improper influence on behalf of his state's failing, scandal-ridden savings and loan industry - a charge that some observers consider the most serious of all accusations facing Wright.
Wright says he did call Edwin J. Gray, then head of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which regulates savings and loans, on behalf of three beleaguered Texas investors - one of them a prominent Democratic fund raiser and another an S&L owner accused of fraud.
Wright's spokesman says he also contacted Gray on behalf of the more than 100 Fort Worth business people who complained loudly to Wright in a 1986 meeting that federal regulators were being too tough with Texas thrifts.
Wright says he asked Gray "to determine whether the citizens were being treated fairly." Gray told Wall Street Journal reporters that Wright had asked for the firing of the chief federal examiner of Texas savings and loans. Wright's aides deny that.
In a 22-page statement released June 10, the day the House ethics panel announced the Wright inquiry, the Speaker said that his financial standing has suffered while he has been in Congress.
"The solemn fact is that my net worth when I came to Congress at the age of 31 was considerably better by comparative terms that it is today when I am 65," he said.
"My goal - and just about my only professional goal in living at this point - is to be a good and effective public servant," Wright said.