Former Speaker of the House Tom Foley died this past Friday at the age of 84. He became Speaker in 1989 and served until replaced by Newt Gingrich in 1994. Foley was defeated in the same year in his own district.
Tom was a friend of mine and his kindness knew no limits.
How ironic that this gentle giant in politics should pass away in one of the most bitter times in his beloved House. Ironic because Tom Foley was one of the greats who believed in reaching across the aisle and embracing his opponents. Tom would ensure that each and every Republican, as long as they were respectful to other members of the House, voice would be heard and treated fairly.
The Speaker represented all that was good about American politics. A time when serving in the Congress was a place of honor and service. When people views were treated with respect. Differences in opinions, although hotly debated, were accepted as a part of civilized discourse.
Tom was near 6'4" tall, and loved to work out in the House gym. He was the handsome 'Marlboro' man from Spokane. Washington. His wife, Heather, was a partner not only in love but in politics. It was hard think of the Speaker without factoring in his wife. They were a powerful team on the Hill.
The New York Times reports on this amazing man:
Mr. Foley — well read, impeccably dressed and quite tall (he stood 6-foot-4) — had been the House majority leader when he took the speaker’s chair on June 6, 1989. His rise came in the wake 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 resigned before an ethics inquiry was completed.
Mr. Foley immediately 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 estimations he lived up to that promise to a degree unmatched by his successors. For a time, he succeeded 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, the gay representative from Massachusetts, and the Gingrich aide urged reporters to investigate Mr. Foley’s sexuality. Mr. Foley denied he was gay.
This was the beginning of the end of civilized behavior among peers in the House of Representatives. Gingrich's ascension changed the nature of politics forever. The dignity of serving in the Foley House had been stripped bare by Gingrich quicker than Sherman marched through Gingrich's Georgia.
One of Speaker Foley's favorite places in Washington, DC was around the kitchen table at the home of Bob Shrum and Marylouise Oates. He loved their informal dinner parties and the incredible people around the table who he could engaged in debate. Being Irish, Foley loved the tall tales and jokes as much as he did the politics.
As a young man at the time, he always made sure I was heard and was intensely interested in the issues of human rights and world peace. He always wanted to know what was happening at the grassroots.
Foley was as effective as he was courageous.
He fought hard to pass Clinton's tax increase. He was responsible for getting the assault weapons ban through the House in 1994 and he was a huge opponent of President George H.W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 1991. On such issues as prayer in school, flag burning and other fringe amendments to the United States Constitution presented by Republicans, he quickly struck them down.
Meeting him for the first time, I thought how could someone so powerful and effective be so gracious and kind. Everyone was important to Tom Foley including this young gay man who sought his help and receive it in passing HIV/AIDS legislation and stopping anti-Gay amendments from surfacing in his House.
The number of times I had to ask him to kill yet one more ugly amendment from the Republicans were countless. Never did I feel those requests were a burden to him. That was the genius of the man.
His memoir was entitled "Honor in the House" and no title could have been more appropriate.