In December, 1976, I was a staff member for Congressman Ron Paul. In November, he had lost his campaign for re-election by fewer than 300 votes out of over 180,000. My days as a Congressional staffer were numbered — thankfully.
The Democrats in that month elected Tip O’Neill the Speaker of the House. O’Neill was unopposed. A battle raged over who would be second in command: House Majority Leader.
There were four candidates. The front-runner was Phil Burton of San Francisco, probably the most far left Congressman in the House, with the possible exception of his brother, John, who is still a major Democrat player. Then there was Richard Bolling, a Constitutional law expert with a lot of enemies. Jim Wright of Ft. Worth was third. In fourth place was John McFall, who was plagued by a scandal.
The rules were clear: the bottom man was eliminated in each round of voting. First, McFall was eliminated; then Bolling, but just barely. It came down to Burton vs. Wright. Wright won, 148 to 147.
Wright was perceived as a moderate, but his success in pushing liberal legislation, first as Majority Leader and later as Speaker of the House, was the stuff of legend. He went along to get along, to cite another Texas Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. He knew how to work the legislative system. He was to the House what Lyndon Johnson had been to the Senate.
When one vote determines the outcome of an election, anyone who voted can claim to be the deciding factor. One such claimant was Congressman Larry McDonald. He was the most conservative Democrat in the House in 1976. Arguably, he was the most conservative House Democrat in the twentieth century. He was a member of the John Birch Society, and had he not disappeared, along with the never-located Korean Airlines Flight 007, in 1983, he would have become the head of the JBS.
At the initial meeting of the Council for National Policy in early 1981, he and I discussed old times and new times. He made an observation that has stuck with me ever since.
The worst vote of my career was my vote for Jim Wright for Majority Leader in 1976. I thought Burton was a Communist. But if he had won, House Democrats would not have gone along with him on a lot of disastrous bills that Jim Wright pushed through.
McDonald had made a choice. He looked at the voting record of two politicians and decided that one of them was the lesser of two evils. In terms of their voting records, this assessment was correct, but in terms of their respective abilities to get bills passed and signed into law by the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, it was incorrect. McDonald recognized this too late.