Tom Foley: The last US House Speaker of a lost bipartisan age


Tom Foley was the last House Speaker of a vanished age, when compromise was not a dirty word on Capitol Hill, when Congress functioned more or less as it was meant to and respect or even affection for one's opponent was not regarded as a near-mortal sin. His defining qualities – patience, civility and a sense of measure – were those conspicuous by their absence now in this era of government shutdown and Tea Party extremism.

He looked the part too, tall, slightly stooped and ever impeccably dressed. Foley was a Democrat to the core. None the less during his five years as Speaker, between 1989 and 1994, he held regular weekly meetings with his Republican opposite number, the minority leader Bob Michel, a practice unimaginable today.

The son of a county judge in Republican-leaning eastern Washington, and a protégé of that state's legendary Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Foley launched his national political career in 1964 with an improbable challenge to a 22-year incumbent in Washington's 5th Congressional district, that included his home town Spokane. Riding the momentum of Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater that year, Foley triumphed, and would hold the seat himself for the next 30 years, never spending a single day in the minority. Typically, after his success he held a reception honour of Walt Horan, the man he defeated.

In the House Foley rose steadily, almost by acclamation, within his party. By 1975 he was chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, where he improved food safety regulations and consolidated the food stamp programme (today a prime target of conservative Republicans). Four years later he was elected Democratic whip, the third-ranking position in the majority party. In 1987 he became majority leader. In June 1989, when Speaker Jim Wright was felled in an ethics scandal, driven by the then Republican whip Newt Gingrich, Foley was Wright's inevitable successor.

The Wright affair ushered in the take-no-prisoners style of politics that is hallmark of how the House of Representatives operates today, and the Foley speakership would be the last hurrah of the old guard, even as the atmosphere grew more poisonous. Its achievements none the less were notable, including an important update of the Clean Air Act, major expansions of the Medicare and education programmes, as well as a far-reaching 1990 budget deal and approval of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement in 1993, after Bill Clinton entered the White House.

By then, however, the storm clouds were darkening. Foley had never been the most natural fit for an increasingly conservative eastern Washington, and more than once he faced a close re-election battle. But, aided by his pro-farming stance and opposition to gun controls, he survived – until the "Republican Revolution" spearheaded by Gingrich, of the 1994 mid-term elections.

By then Foley's unwavering opposition to term limits – a fashionable notion at the time – enabled Republicans to depict him as the incarnation of a complacent, Democrat-dominated status quo. In his home state, his Republican opponent George Nethercutt portrayed him as an out-of-touch creature of Washington DC. On election night Foley was Gingrich's biggest scalp of all, the first incumbent Speaker to lose his seat since the American Civil War.

In fact his interests stretched far beyond Washington and its intrigues. A firm Anglophile, he was also a long-standing member of the Bilderberg Group, seen by some of more paranoid disposition as a secretive and unofficial world government. Afer his departure from Congress he served as Clinton's ambassador to Tokyo for four years, a job he loved.

In 1968 he married Heather Strachan, lawyer and daughter of a diplomat, in a personal and political partnership that would last 45 years. The couple had no children, and Heather became an unpaid but effective chief of staff to her husband, her influence resented by some on Capitol Hill. In her own obituary of him, she described Tom Foley's qualities. He was, she wrote, "very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable… that half of something was better than none, and that there was always another day and another Congress to move forward and get the other half done." How different from today.

Thomas Stephen Foley, politician: born Spokane, Washington 6 March 1929; US Representative, 5th District, Washington state 1965-1995; Majority leader, House of Representatives 1987-1989, Speaker 1989-1995; US Ambassador to Japan 1997-2001; married 1968 Heather Strachan; died Washington DC 18 October 2013.

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