Thomas S. Foley, a courtly congressman from Washington State who as speaker of the House for five years sought to still the chamber's rising tide of partisan combat before it swept the Democratic majority, and Mr. Foley himself, out of office in 1994, died on Friday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 84.
Mr. Foley's wife, Heather, said the cause was complications of strokes. He had a stroke last December, was hospitalized with pneumonia in May and had been under hospice care at his home virtually since then, she said.
In a statement, President Obama called Mr. Foley "a legend of the United States Congress" whose "straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties."
When he became speaker on June 6, 1989, Mr. Foley appealed to "our friends on the Republican side to come together and put away bitterness and division and hostility." He promised to treat "each and every member" fairly, regardless of party, and by most estimates he lived up to that promise to a degree unmatched by his successors.
Mr. Foley had been the House majority leader when he rose to the speaker's chair on the heels of a bitter, though successful, fight led by Representative Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, to oust Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat from Texas, over allegations of ethics violations; one was that he had improperly accepted gifts from a Fort Worth developer. Mr. Wright's own partisanship had riled Republicans, and his widely perceived high-handedness had bothered Democrats. Mr. Wright resigned before an ethics inquiry was completed.
Mr. Foley, well read, fastidiously dressed and quite tall -- he stood 6-foot-4 -- succeeded for a time in making the House a more civil place, winning praise from many Republicans for his fairness. But by 1994 Republicans had hardened, painting the Democratic-controlled House as out of touch and corrupt.
Their strategy worked. That year, Republicans won their first majority in the House in 40 years, and Mr. Foley became the first speaker since the Civil War to be defeated for re-election in his own district. (Speaker Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania lost his seat in 1862.)
Mr. Foley had gotten a taste of that partisanship a few days before becoming speaker, when the Republican National Committee and an aide to Mr. Gingrich sought to portray him as homosexual. The committee put out a memo labeled "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet," equating his voting record with that of Barney Frank, an openly gay representative from Massachusetts. The Gingrich aide urged reporters to investigate Mr. Foley's sexuality. Mr. Foley denied he was gay.
President George H. W. 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.
Mr. Foley's five and half years as speaker were marked by a successful effort to force President Bush to accept tax increases as part of a 1990 deficit-reduction deal, and by unsuccessful opposition to the president's plans to invade Iraq in 1991.
When Mr. Bush was succeeded by Bill Clinton, a Democrat, Mr. Foley played a central role in winning passage of Mr. Clinton's 1993 budget plan, which also included tax increases. The measure passed the House, 218 to 216, without a single Republican vote.
And despite a long history of opposing any gun control measures, Mr. Foley helped win House passage of a 1994 ban on assault weapons, which played a major role in the Republican victory that fall. He had been shaken when a troubled Air Force enlisted man went on a shooting rampage at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Wash., killing five people and wounding 22.
He also bucked a majority of House Democrats in supporting Mr. Clinton's successful effort to win ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But he did not cite any of those measures when asked to reflect on his record in his last news conference, on Nov. 19, 1994.
"If I had one compelling concern in the time that I have been speaker, but previous to that as well," he said, "it is that we not idly tamper with the Constitution of the United States."
He had been a fierce opponent of proposed constitutional amendments that would have required a balanced federal budget, term limits for members of Congress and a ban on flag burning, all championed by Republicans. Of the flag-burning measure, he said, "If it is not conservative to protect the Bill of Rights, then I don't know what conservatism is today."
Despite sharp differences on issues, he got along better with members of the other party than any of the speakers who followed him. In that final news conference, asked to offer advice to the next speaker, Mr. Gingrich, he urged him to remember, "You are the speaker of the whole House and not just one party."
Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the minority leader whom Mr. Foley allowed to preside at the closing of the 103rd Congress, said Mr. Foley had attained that bipartisan goal himself. Mr. Foley, he said, "just felt it was a significant step from being majority leader" and that as speaker, "you submerge" partisan impulses.
But his good relations with Mr. Michel did not stop Republicans from taking aim at Mr. Foley, whose rural district in and around Spokane usually leaned Republican.
George Nethercutt, a lawyer backed not only by the national Republican apparatus but also by the National Rifle Association and supporters of term limits, ran against Mr. Foley in 1994. Charging that Mr. Foley had lost touch with the district, Mr. Nethercutt promised to serve only three terms (though he changed his mind and served five) and won narrowly. Mr. Gingrich later called Washington State "ground zero" of the Republican onslaught that year.
The Nethercutt victory brought an end to a 30-year House career that was a textbook example of a traditional rise to power.
Thomas Stephen Foley was born on March 6, 1929, in Spokane, the only son of Ralph E. Foley, a county prosecutor and judge, and the former Helen Marie Higgins, a teacher whose family had been pioneers in Lincoln County, Wash.
He attended Gonzaga Preparatory School and Gonzaga University in Spokane before transferring to the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1951 and a law degree in 1957. Afterward he joined the Spokane County prosecutor's office, taught constitutional law at Gonzaga's law school and worked in the office of the Washington State attorney general.
In 1960 he joined the staff of Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington as chief counsel and worked with him on the staff of the Senate Committee on the Interior. Senator Jackson, who was known as Scoop, was a mentor: Mr. Foley had known him since he was young, when Mr. Jackson would come for dinner at his parents' house.
It was Senator Jackson who urged Mr. Foley to run against an 11-term Republican incumbent, Walt Horan, in 1964. He won in what was a great year for Democrats, who captured both houses of Congress as President Lyndon B. Johnson earned a full term in a landslide.
In 1968 Mr. Foley married Heather Strachan, a lawyer who became an unofficial chief of staff for her husband. In 1992, The New York Times wrote of her, "In contrast to her husband, a gentle, friendly man whose success was built on his congeniality, Mrs. Foley is blunt-spoken and strong-minded and has become increasingly resented and feared as her power has grown."
Besides his wife, Mr. Foley is survived by a sister, Maureen Latimer.
Vacancies enabled Mr. Foley to rise quickly on the Agriculture Committee, a post of importance to his grain-growing constituents in eastern Washington. He was also an important figure in the reform movement in the House, chairing the Democratic Study Group in 1974. Its key achievement was a rule enabling the Democratic caucus to elect committee chairmen.
Mr. Foley nominated the incumbent chairman of the Agriculture Committee, W. R. Poage of Texas, to continue in that post. But the caucus, spurred by 75 change-oriented freshmen elected in the wake of Watergate, rejected him and elected Mr. Foley instead. Two years later he was elected chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
He gave up both posts in 1981 when Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill and the majority leader, Jim Wright, asked him to serve as Democratic whip, a rung on the leadership ladder that Mr. O'Neill had climbed. Another reason he took the job was that it offered him a chance to involve himself in broader issues, especially foreign policy.
After Mr. O'Neill retired and Mr. Wright became speaker in 1987, Mr. Foley advanced to majority leader, and to speaker on Mr. Wright's resignation.
After leaving Congress, Mr. Foley was chairman of President Clinton's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1995 to 1997. He then served for three years as ambassador to Japan, a nation he had studied and frequently visited, in part to promote his district's farm products.
Rather than retire, Mr. Foley remained in Washington, where he and his wife had built a house, and practiced law there at the blue chip firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. He and Jeffrey R. Biggs, his former press secretary, collaborated on a biographical book published in 1999, titling it "Honor in the House."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 18, 2013 2:00 PM