Obituary: Thomas S. Foley / Former House speaker sought to still chamber's rising partisan antagonism

March 6, 1929 - Oct. 18, 2013


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Thomas S. Foley, a courtly congressman from Washington state who as speaker of the House of Representatives 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 Friday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 84.

Mr. Foley's wife, Heather, said in a statement that the cause was complications of strokes. She said he had a stroke in December, was hospitalized with pneumonia in May and had been under hospice care at his home virtually since then.

In a statement, President Barack 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 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 Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to oust Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, over allegations of ethics violations; one was that he had improperly accepted gifts from a Fort Worth developer. Wright's own partisanship had riled Republicans, and his widely perceived high-handedness had bothered Democrats. 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. The Republican National Committee and an aide to Mr. Gingrich had sought to portray him as homosexual, an accusation that Mr. Foley denied. 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's five and a half years as speaker were marked by a successful effort to force President George H.W. 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, 218-216, without a single Republican vote.

And despite a long history of opposing 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."

But his good relations with some GOP House members 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 (although 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 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 Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington as chief counsel and worked with him on the staff of the Senate Committee on the Interior. Jackson, who was known as Scoop, was a mentor: Mr. Foley had known him since he was young, when Jackson would come for dinner at his parents' house.

It was 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.

After leaving Congress, Mr. Foley was chairman of President Bill 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."

obituaries

First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM


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