Former House Speaker Tom Foley dies

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Foley died Friday at age 84. (AP Photo/Louie Balukoff, File)

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Foley died Friday at age 84. (AP Photo/Louie Balukoff, File)

By Kyung M. Song

The Seattle Times (MCT)

WASHINGTON – Tom Foley, who rose higher in Congress than anyone from Washington state only to be cast out as Speaker of the House in the 1994 Republican tsunami, has died at 84.

Foley, who had been in declining health, died Friday in Washington, D.C., his home for five decades.

Other than former U.S. Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, few people from the state left a bigger political imprint nationally than Foley.

His House speakership put Foley two heartbeats away from the presidency during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Immensely popular in Congress, Foley practiced the kind of bipartisanship that allowed for mutual friendship with Republican ideologues like Dick Cheney.

Foley’s proclivity for debate sometimes exasperated his more pugnacious colleagues. Former Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the outspoken Massachusetts liberal, once groused “Tom Foley can argue three sides of every issue.”

Those traits eventually proved Foley’s undoing. After 30 years, conservative voters in Eastern Washington’s 5th District sacked Foley as too entrenched with power. His defeat gave way to the GOP revolution under Speaker Newt Gingrich and signaled the turn toward heightened congressional gridlock.

Foley’s “speakership was the last speakership of the era in U.S. Congress,” said professor Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute at Washington State University in Pullman. “It was the end of a much more civil time.”

Thomas Stephen Foley was born in Spokane to Ralph and Helen Foley, both offspring of Irish immigrants. When Foley was 5, his father was elected Spokane County prosecutor, and later became Superior Court judge. Foley and his sister, Maureen, grew up in relative comfort amid the Great Depression.

Foley was educated at Gonzaga Preparatory School, a Catholic high school in Spokane, and then at the Jesuit Gonzaga University, his father’s alma mater. Listless at Gonzaga, he transferred during his junior year to the University of Washington in Seattle.

Foley earned a law degree from UW in 1957, and briefly opened a practice with a cousin. In 1958, he became the deputy prosecutor for Spokane County, the same post his father had held three decades earlier.

After a stint as assistant attorney general for the state, Foley went to work in the U.S. Senate in 1961 as Jackson’s staff attorney. There Foley met Heather Strachan, a fellow Jackson staffer, who would become his wife in 1968.

The marriage produced no children. But it begot an exceptionally close personal and political union. Heather Foley, a graduate of Brown University and George Washington University Law School, served as her husband’s unsalaried chief of staff in Congress for nearly 25 years. She was his confidante, policy adviser and political antenna.

Irish luck?

A self-professed Type B person, Foley seemed to glide through his career on Irish luck.

Prompted by Jackson, Foley made his first bid for Congress in 1964. But he dawdled until the final filing day to challenge the 5th District seat of Republican Walt Horan, who had held it for 22 years. Foley squeaked to victory by just 54 votes.

Foley won his subsequent re-elections handily. In 1975, his House peers elected him chairman of the Agriculture Committee after they booted out the Democratic incumbent Foley had supported.

In 1981, Foley became the backup choice as Majority Whip, the No. 3 House leader, when Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois took a pass on the position to assume chairmanship of the influential Ways and Means Committee.

Six years later, Foley moved up a notch to succeed Majority Leader Jim Wright, who became Speaker. Then in 1989, the top job became Foley’s when financial shenanigans forced Wright’s resignation.

Former Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, one of Foley’s closest friends in Congress, said Foley’s popularity spared his ascent from competitive obstructions.

He did it “all without being contested, which I think is remarkable,” Dicks said.

Foley was a skillful parliamentarian whose 6-foot 4-inch frame and hangdog, but handsome, face belied his taste for high culture and affinity for pomp. Always, he preferred debate over demagoguery.

Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle, who met Foley in 1972 during McDermott’s unsuccessful campaign for governor, called him a generous mentor and a lawmaker who aimed for the art of the possible. More partisan Democrats called Foley bloodless.

“People criticized him,” said McDermott, who served six years in the House under Foley. But “he knew that everything in Congress was by compromise, and that nobody ever got all they wanted.”

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