Tom Foley, 'an unusually civil politician,' dies

Sunday - 10/20/2013, 8:24am EDT

ALAN FRAM
Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -- Tom Foley was born in 1929, the year of the great stock market crash, and grew up in Spokane during World War II. These experiences shaped his viewpoint during a long political career, which culminated with him becoming the first Speaker of the House to hail from west of the Rocky Mountains.

Foley, who died Friday at the age of 84 of complications from a stroke, also became the first speaker to be booted from office by his constituents since the Civil War, suffering defeat during the 1994 "Republican Revolution." Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University, said Foley's defeat signaled a change to the more confrontational politics of modern times.

"He was the last major leader to grow up in the Depression and World War II era," Clayton said. "They gave him a different perspective on viewing policy disputes."

Members of that generation worked in a more bipartisan manner, Clayton said. "They saw us all on the same team."

Foley served 30 years in the U.S. House, including more than five years in the speaker's chair. In that job, he was third in line of succession to the presidency, making him the highest-ranking public official in Washington state history.

Foley's wife, Heather, said he suffered a stroke last December and was hospitalized in May with pneumonia. He returned to his District of Columbia home after a week and had been on hospice care there ever since, she said.

He "was very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable," Ms. Foley wrote in a 10-page obituary of her husband. She said he believed that "half of something was better than none."

"There was always another day and another Congress to move forward and get the other half done," she wrote.

In a statement Friday, President Barack Obama said: "America has lost a legend of the United States Congress."

Foley, who grew up in a politically active family in Spokane, represented that agriculture-heavy area for 15 terms in the House.

As speaker, he was a key negotiator in the 1990 budget talks that led to then-President George H.W. Bush breaking his pledge to never raise taxes, an episode that played a role in Bush's 1992 defeat. Even so, Bush released a statement Friday lauding Foley.

"Tom never got personal or burned bridges," Bush said. "We didn't agree on every issue, but on key issues we managed to put the good of the country ahead of politics."

Also in 1990, Foley let the House vote on a resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, despite "strong personal reservations and the strenuous objections of a good many" House Democrats, Bob Michel, an Illinois Republican who was House minority leader at the time, recalled Friday.

"But he granted our request for a vote because it was the right thing to do. He was that kind of leader," Michel said in a statement.

Though the politics of Foley's era was less sharp-edged than today, it was not without hardball. As he became speaker in June 1989, a Republican National Committee memo was circulated called, "Tom Foley. Out of the Liberal Closet," that said Foley's voting record was as liberal as that of openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Some lawmakers took the memo as hinting that Foley was gay, which he denied. The White House said then-President George H.W. Bush was "disgusted" by the incident, and Foley said he considered the episode closed.

Foley was also at the helm when, in 1992, revelations that many lawmakers had been allowed to overdraw their checking accounts at the House bank provoked a wave of anger against incumbents. In 1993, he helped shepherd President Bill Clinton's budget through the House.

He never served a day as a member of the House's minority party. The Republican capture of the chamber in the 1994 gave them control for the first time in 40 years and Foley, it turned out, was their prize victim.

He was replaced as speaker by his nemesis, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., leader of a group of rebellious younger Republicans who rejected the less-combative tactics of established GOP leaders like Michel.

Foley was defeated in 1994 by 4,000 votes by Spokane attorney George Nethercutt, a Republican who supported term limits, which the speaker fought. Also hurting Foley was his ability to bring home federal benefits, which Nethercutt used by accusing him of pork-barrel politics.