Tom Foley: Remembering the sense of honor that once reigned in the House

A true son of Spokane and Washington state showed how Congress could be made more civil.
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Tom Foley with President George H.W. Bush

A true son of Spokane and Washington state showed how Congress could be made more civil.

Former U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley, one of our state's most distinguished public servants, was everything today's national leadership is not:  Gentlemanly, respectful of differing views, learned and devoted to finding consensus and common ground between the two political parties. He represented a better, higher time in national politics and had to have been appalled in particular at the posturing, polarizing tactics in the most recent budget crisis.

"You are the Speaker of the whole House, not one party," he once declared in describing his responsibilities.

He died last Friday at 84 in Washington, D.C., after suffering several strokes since late 2012.

Tom Foley was a true son of our state. Born and raised in Spokane, he attended Gonzaga Prep, Gonzaga University, the University of Washington and the UW Law School, from which he received a law degree in 1957. I first met him at the UW in the mid-1950s when we both participated in a discussion of McCarthyism at the home of Prof. Giovanni Costigan.

Our paths crossed again and we became friends in Washington, D.C. when he served as a staff member of Sen. Henry Jackson and I of Sen. Hubert Humphrey. I first met his later wife, Heather Strachan, in 1964, during the Johnson-Humphrey presidential campaign against Sen. Barry Goldwater. Tom was campaigning for a congressional seat that year but still found time to court Heather. He would come to the Democratic National Committee offices, then on K Street in downtown Washington, to pick up Heather after her workdays there.

The 1964 Democratic landslide swept Tom into a normally Republican Spokane congressional district.  Some other 1964 Democratic winners lost their seats in the 1966 midterm elections. But Tom Foley would hold his until 1994, when George Nethercutt defeated him in a sweep year for Republicans.

Historians will rate Foley's 1989-1994 Speakership as one of the most effective in congressional history. He enlisted sufficient Republican support to pass President Bill Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement when not enough House Democrats voted for it. He instituted House procedures assuring civility. He opposed President George H.W. Bush's 1991 Iraq invasion but did so on the substance of the issue rather than via personal attack.

He opposed, as a matter of principle, several constitutional amendments. He believed the Constitution should not be amended except for obvious and compelling reasons.

I have a personal recollection of Tom Foley that has stuck with me over the years.

We both were attending a 1980s international conference, which included numerous German Social Democratic parliamentarians. A fellow Democrat — now holding national office — insulted the progressive SPD Germans by suggesting some association on their part with Nazism. Foley set him right in diplomatic but clear terms.

In all the years I knew and worked with him, I never knew Tom Foley to engage in low political tactics, personal or political slurs, or for that matter profanity. Semi-critics said Foley's moderate-conservative congressional district made it expedient for him to forego sharp partisanship. But, no, his district had little to do with his gentlemanly high-road demeanor. That was simply who he was.

His wife Heather served through his career as his advisor and unofficial chief of staff and was with him until his final hours Friday. Their marriage was one of the capital's closest.

After his loss of the Speakership, he served on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, 1995-7. President Clinton suggested he serve as U.S. Ambassador to China, but Heather had health problems that would have been difficult for her there. Instead, he became Ambassador to Japan for three years, and then joined a capital law firm.

The deteriorating, polarized political culture of recent years no doubt dismayed Tom Foley, still in the capital but unable to affect it.

Tom Foley co-authored a book with his former press secretary, Jeffrey Biggs. Its title exemplified his service: "Honor in the House."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of