THE new House Speaker, after only a few days in that role, was being greeted by a breakfast group of reporters which had sat with him many times before he had assumed this lofty position. The mood was light. ``Is Jim Wright changed overnight?'' someone asked. ``You'd better believe it,'' Mr. Wright said. ``I'm now arrogant, swell-headed, all those things.'' ``No,'' another reporter put in, ``we mean, how do you really feel about this promotion?''
``You've got a guy who is really excited about it,'' Wright answered. ``To pretend otherwise as though I were blas'e and sophisticated and utterly unmoved by the whole thing, just taking it in stride...'' - here he leaned back and laughed loudly - ``that's not the case.''
``Are you humble?'' a reporter asked. ``I hope so,'' said Wright. ``I'm proud of my humility.''
``How about your dealings with the President?'' someone asked. ``Will it be accommodating?'' ``Respectful,'' said Wright, now talking seriously. ``I came to Washington when Mr. [Sam] Rayburn was the speaker and Mr. Eisenhower was President. It was one of my very first recollections as a member of Congress. It was the day of the State of the Union message, and I was sitting there witnessing it for the first time, awed by the pomp and the majesty and the ceremony.'' He went on:
``Mr. Eisenhower was in the pink of health in those days.... He came down the aisle smiling that famous Eisenhower smile and stood there in front of the crowd as wave after wave of adulation swept over it. You couldn't tell the Democrats from the Republicans in that response. Then finally when it subsided he began his prepared remarks, and his first statement, departing from his script, was to acknowledge that it was the birthday of Speaker Rayburn, his 72nd birthday - and to wish for Mr. Sam many happy returns of the day.''
With eyes shut in recollection, the new Speaker went on: ``Well, once again the whole audience was on its feet, whistling and stomping and cheering and thundering out its ovation for the Speaker until Rayburn blushed way up to the top of his gleaming bald head. He was a little embarrassed by this show of affection.
``I have thought many times since then what a really remarkable thing it is - what a wonderful thing - to live in a country where these two men, who represented opposite political parties and different branches of our government, nevertheless could be men who respected one another professionally and liked one another personally.
``I would like to see that kind of ambiance restored. I don't know whether that's possible with Mr. Reagan, given the nature of his personality. But cooperation is a two-way street. I would like very much to think we have something to offer in counseling and something to be considered by the President. We don't want to be a rival center of power. We would much rather be a partner - not a junior partner but an equal partner. That's what the Constitution intends. We don't ask for any more - but we can't settle for any less.''
How is your relationship with the President?
On a kind of superficial, personal plane the relationship is not bad - it's good. He is a splendid storyteller. He can entertain - and if you don't get on substantive issues, he's pleasant and a joy of a person to be around. But when you get on substantive issues, it becomes frustrating.
What will be your style as Speaker compared with that of Tip O'Neill?
I don't think anyone can describe his own style. I think that the main thing is that a person has to be himself or herself. To pretend to imitate someone else or pattern oneself after another person is a mistake.
If there is one basic change in the thrust in the House, I should think it will be our effort to establish a limited but achievable agenda - to establish time schedules with which the various principal components of our legislative program will be brought to the House. I hope we can do this in an orderly way which will let us consider the important matters in a logical succession rather than waiting for everything to get all jammed up at the end of the session - when legislative craftsmanship sometimes suffers in the logjam.
How can the President put the Iran-contra affair behind him?
By acknowledging that the law is to be obeyed - just that simple. Also, he must say, ``I made a mistake.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.