Obituary
9:24 am
Fri October 18, 2013

Tom Foley, Former House Speaker, Dies At 84

Tom Foley, a Spokane Democrat who rose to become speaker of the House in 1989, died Friday morning at his current home in Washington, DC. He was 84. 

Former House Speaker Tom Foley jokes about the size of the letters placed on the federal courthouse during a dedication ceremony renaming the building in his honor April 6, 2001, in Spokane, Wash.
Credit AP Photo/Jeff T. Green

His wife Heather Foley  told the Associated Press her husband died of complications from strokes. Foley had been in hospice care in the nation's capital for the past six months.

Foley left Congress in 1994, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Foley was the first House speaker to be defeated in his home district since the Civil War.

On that election night, according to news reports at the time, Foley 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,” he said, according to ABC News.

That November, Foley delivered his farewell speech on the House floor after 30 years in Congress. He betrayed no bitterness. “My Congressional career has come to a close, and I leave this Congress with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude,” he said.

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.”

Thomas Stephen Foley was born in 1929, the son of a prominent judge on Spokane’s South Hill. The Foleys were an Irish-Catholic Democrat family in a neighborhood of Republicans.

He received a Jesuit education, a law degree at University of Washington and eventually a Senate committee job courtesy of then-Sen. 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, Foley, 36, defeated a Republican incumbent who had been in office for 22 years. In that first year, Foley  voted in favor of 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 B. Johnson, Foley has been described as a “master politician” and a physically imposing man at 6’3” and more than 200 pounds. But in his own words, he was “a peacemaker, not a street fighter.”

“Tom Foley didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” said 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," Keefe said. "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.”

Foley biographer Jeff Biggs recalled 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,” attorney Robert Marritz said. Marritz worked closely with Foley on the Northwest Power Act of 1980 and later wrote a short biography about Foley for HistoryLink.org.

“Heather was a force," Marritz said. "Much as I imagine Hillary Clinton was in the Clinton White House.”

The Foleys did not have 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, which touted her as “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.

Over time, Foley developed a reputation as an internationalist with a particular interest in Japan. Foley was elected speaker in 1989 after Jim Wright of Texas stepped down amid an ethics scandal. He held the top job through George H.W. Bush’s presidency and the first half of President Clinton’s first term.

In his final years, Foley proved a controversial figure in Congress. He opposed authorizing the first Iraq War. He supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he voted in favor of President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

Biggs said 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.’”

But those positions may have been his undoing. In 1994, Foley lost to Republican challenger George Nethercutt.

After that defeat, Clinton appointed Foley as ambassador to Japan under Clinton. He and Heather never returned to Spokane fulltime.

Perhaps it was the man who defeated him who summed him up most eloquently: Foley, Nethercutt said, was “a gentlemen speaker who served with dignity.”