Thomas P. Foley of Spokane, Washington was the first and still the only Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from west of Texas. He was also the last real “Speaker of the House” as opposed to every speaker since who has really been the Speaker of the Majority Party.
Tom Foley’s death this week at 84 reminds us that the leader of the House of Representatives was once a courtly, civil, decent guy who, as Politico noted, was “a man too gentle for modern Washington.” Stories about Tom Foley more often contain words like compromise and civility rather than adversary and attack.
We can mark the serious decline in the quality of public life to Foley’s defeat in the 1994 Republican sweep that brought Newt Gingrich and his swelled head and bitter partisanship to the center of Washington and American politics. The Gingrich-inspired style – hyper-partisanship, win at any cost, destroy your opponent – is now the norm and those of us who remember Foley can only wonder what might have been had the inconsequential George Nettercutt not defeated Foley in the Fifth District of Washington at a pivotal moment in recent American political history. Nettercutt’s entire legacy in five terms in Congress – he campaigned on serving only three, but changed his mind – is that he defeated Tom Foley. The Gentleman from Spokane will be and is better remembered.
Foley’s defeat was a function of tough votes he made on the budget and taxes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and, after a mass shooting at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base, a ban on assault weapons. It also didn’t help, as Adam Clymer recalled, that Gingrich authorized a smear campaign that scurrilously suggested the married Foley was homosexual.
As Clymer wrote in the New York Times obit of the former Speaker, just days before the 1994 election the Republican National Committee (RNC) and a Gingrich aide “put out a memo labeled ‘Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,’ equating his voting record with that of Barney Frank, the gay representative from Massachusetts, and the Gingrich aide urged reporters to investigate Mr. Foley’s sexuality. Mr. Foley denied he was gay.
“President George Bush said he was ‘disgusted at the memo,’ but he also said he believed the R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater, who had been Mr. Bush’s presidential campaign strategist, when Mr. Atwater said he did not know where the memo had originated. Because of Mr. Atwater’s own reputation for attack-dog politics, the president’s belief was not widely shared.”
Foley’s career touched and influenced national agricultural policy, foreign relations, regional energy issues and tax and budget policy. While Congressional conservatives rail against an out of control federal budget today it is worth remembering that Tom Foley rounded up the votes in the House in 1993 – against unanimous GOP opposition – that made Bill Clinton’s budget and tax policies law. How soon we have forgotten that the Clinton-era yielded a balanced budget, a surplus and a decade of economic growth before George W. Bush’s tax cuts and endless wars left the federal budget in a shambles.
The great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote the foreward to the book – Honor in the House – that Foley and one of his long-time aides Jeff Biggs wrote in 1999. “Tom and I came from Irish immigrant stock,” Mansfield wrote, “which probably meant we were destined to be Democrats. But the legacy also meant we had to see more than one side in any argument. I could feel right at home with former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s comment that Tom Foley could always see ‘three sides in any argument.’”
“He never put politics ahead of country. Never, never, never,” said Tom O’Donnell, a former Democratic leadership aide during Foley’s time. “We would never have seen what we’ve seen in the past few weeks” with Foley in the House.
Asked following his defeat in 1994 what advice he would give the incoming Speaker, Foley responded in typical Foley style – civil, thoughtful and correct. “When one becomes Speaker of the House, you are Speaker of the whole House and not just one party. You have responsibility to be fair and impartial to all members, to enforce the rules without regard to party, and to uphold the traditions and honor of the institution.” Unfortunately no Speaker since has behaved that way.
We should mourn the passing of a good and decent man, a power in the life of the Northwest for many years, and a man who wore the title politician without sullying the word. But at Tom Foley’s passing let us also hope for more of his kind in public life. They cannot come on the stage too soon.