Former House Speaker Tom Foley on the plaza outside the U.S. courthouse in Spokane in 2001. (AP photo)
Former House Speaker Tom Foley, who died Friday, had deep roots in the Northwest. He never forgot the voters who sent him to Congress for 15 terms. Foley came from the tradition of progressive and pragmatic politicians that included Washington Sens. Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson, Idaho Sen. Frank Church and Oregon Gov. Tom McCall. His 30-year congressional career stretched from the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton.
I first met Foley in the mid-1970s when I was a reporter for the Idahonian (now the Moscow-Pullman Daily News) and he was the newly elected chair of the House Agriculture Committee. A lawyer by training, Foley became an expert on farm policy – something that endeared him to a generation of farmers in his sprawling district. By including federal support for food stamps in the farm-support bills, Foley built an alliance between urban and rural members of Congress.
Foley once told me that in politics, it’s better to be lucky than to be good. He was both. A thoughtful legislator with a talented staff, Foley was in the right place at the right time to advance in the leadership ranks of the House of Representatives. By 1987, he was the House majority leader, poised to become speaker in 1989 when Jim Wright of Texas resigned.
As a congressional fellow in Washington, D.C., that spring, I heard Wright’s resignation speech form the House gallery and cheered Foley’s succession to the speaker’s chair. His leadership was based on civility, collaboration and compromise – words rarely used to describe the climate in the House today. “I think I am a little cursed with seeing the other point of view and trying to understand it,” Foley said.
Unfortunately, Foley’s tenure as speaker was cut short by the Republican tidal wave of 1994. His own narrow loss (about 4,000 votes) in Washington’s 5th District that year was a blessing in disguise. I don’t think Foley would have been comfortable in the minority caucus, then or since.
After Foley’s defeat in 1994, he donated his congressional papers to the library at Washington State University, where I was a graduate student. My dissertation, completed in 1999, is titled “The Speaker from Spokane: The Rise and Fall of Tom Foley as a Congressional Leader.”
Foley graciously granted four extended interviews to me after leaving Congress. He never tired of telling stories about the people he had met and the legislation on which he worked. And in the course of dozens of interviews with other members of Congress, former Foley staff members, reporters who covered Congress and former political opponents, I found hardly anyone who would say anything evenly mildly critical about the man. That was a tribute to his generous spirit, kind demeanor and sense of fair play.