Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tom Foley has died at the age of 84. Foley’s wife and his former press secretary say the Spokane Democrat passed away Friday morning at his current home in Washington, DC.
There is no cause of death to report yet, but Foley had been in hospice care in the nation’s capital for the past several months.
It’s been nearly two decades since Tom Foley departed Congress. The year was 1994 when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. That left Foley with the dubious distinction of being the first Speaker of the House to be defeated in his home district since the Civil War.
ABC News described the scene at Foley headquarters on that election night this way. “Even with votes still being counted and the race still close, Tom Foley today congratulated his opponent, thanked his staff and conceded the outcome. ‘It appears to me that when all the votes are counted we may fall a few votes short.’”
Later that November, Foley delivered his farewell speech on the House floor after 30 years in Congress. He betrayed no bitterness, saying “My Congressional career has come to a close and I leave this Congress with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude.”
No bitterness. But also no acceptance of responsibility for the House banking scandal and other headlines related to Congressional perks that helped fuel the 1994 Republican Revolution.
“This institution is a great institution,” Foley said. “It is, unfortunately, not always seen in its full and proper dimensions by our fellow citizens. And I think that is a great tragedy.”
“The fact was he was an institutionalist,” explains Foley biographer and former press secretary Jeff Biggs.
“I think his is a story about the institution of Congress and a Congressional leader who tried to right the balance,” he says. “And I think he made a good case as to why politics and public service can be ennobling.”
Thomas Stephen Foley was born in 1929. He grew up the son of a prominent judge on Spokane’s South Hill. The Foleys were an Irish-Catholic Democratic family in a neighborhood of Republicans.
He would go on to get a Jesuit education, a law degree at University of Washington and eventually a Senate committee job courtesy of then-Senator Scoop Jackson. In 1964, almost on a dare, Foley decided to run for Congress.
In 2012, he told the Washington Post about his ill-fated trip to Olympia to file as a candidate. First, he blew a tire. “And the office closed at 5 o’clock so we got the tire fixed and started off for Olympia and before we got there we ran out of gas. And I thought, ‘this is a message.’”
But that fall – at age 36 - Foley defeated a 22-year incumbent Republican. His first year in office he would cast a “yes” vote for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a vote he recalled in a 2011 interview with Gonzaga University.
“It was a statement,” Foley said. “A commitment that the United States was going to do everything possible to see that every American had the right to participate in our government. And I remember going back from that vote thinking we’ve really done something important that day.”
Over the decades Foley climbed the ranks of House leadership. From chair of the Agriculture Committee to majority whip followed by majority leader and eventually Speaker of the House.
Like Lyndon Johnson, Foley has been described as a “master politician,” and was physically imposing too at 6’3” and more than 200 pounds. But in his own words he was “a peacemaker, not a streetfighter.”
“Tom Foley didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” says Tom Keefe, a former Spokane County Democratic Party Chair who worked on Capitol Hill during the Foley era.
“Arm twisting, threatening — those are attributes that certainly were honed to a fine art by other politicians,” he says. “They were just not a part of his character and I don’t think he was willing to try to adopt them in order to succeed.”
Biographer Jeff Biggs recalls that when President George H.W. Bush took office, Foley was pressured by some fellow Democrats to adopt a strategy of constant attack on the Republican White House.
“At the time he said: ‘I think if you want a daily partisan battle and are not interested in getting anything more than the political embarrassment of the opposition that’s not for me.’”
But some fellow Democrats thought that stay-above-the-fray posture crossed into an unhealthy aversion to political combat.
Foley’s rise to the speakership happened with his wife Heather at his side, literally. In an unusual arrangement – that at times raised eyebrows – Heather served as Foley’s unpaid chief of staff.
“She was certainly a confidante to the Congressman,” says attorney Robert Marritz. He worked closely with Foley on the Northwest Power Act 1980 and later wrote a short biography of the Congressman for HistoryLink dot org.
“Heather was a force,” Marritz says. “Much as I imagine Hillary Clinton was in the Clinton White House.”
The Foleys never had children. But they had a beloved dog, Alice, who came to the office every day and even starred in one of Foley’s 1988 campaign ads:
“In the place where the action is, Alice is clearly Washington’s top dog.”
Foley’s rise to national prominence coincided with the Reagan years. In August 1982, then-Speaker “Tip” O’Neill declared “a star is born” after Foley went on national TV to make a Democratic pitch for the Republican president’s compromise tax package to bring down the deficit.
As time went on, Foley developed a reputation as an internationalist with a particular interest in Japan. Foley was elected Speaker in 1989 after Jim Wright of Texas had to step down amid an ethics scandal. He held the top job through the presidency of George H.W. Bush and the first half of President Clinton’s first-term.
Foley’s final years in Congress were marked by controversial positions and votes. Opposition to authorizing the first Iraq War. Support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And a “yes” vote for President Clinton’s 1994 assault weapons ban.
Foley biographer Jeff Biggs says that last vote was in response to a mass shooting that same year at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base. “His view was, and I’m quoting now from an interview, ‘I’ve taken positions that I think were damaging in a political sense, but I don’t have any regrets taking them.’”
One of those positions was a lawsuit challenging a voter-approved term limits requirement. Tom Foley versus the people of Washington became a campaign theme for his Republican opponent in 1994, George Nethercutt.
After losing Congress, Foley went on to become Ambassador to Japan under President Clinton. He and Heather never moved back to Spokane fulltime.
Former Spokane County Democratic party chair Tom Keefe says Foley’s death represents not so much the end of an era, but the loss of a man who represented a bygone era.
“Tom Foley without a doubt was a statesmen and a great Congressman,” Keefe says.
And in the words of George Nethercutt – the Republican newcomer who defeated Foley in 1994 – he was “a gentlemen speaker who served with dignity.”