Tom Foley, a political giant from Washington state whose civility and intellect were key to becoming speaker of the U.S. House, died last week.
Former Speaker Foley, a Democrat, represented the politically conservative 5th Congressional District of Eastern Washington from 1965 through 1994 (Walla Walla was included in the district from the 1970s on).
It’s unlikely a moderate Democrat such as Foley will again represent this Republican stronghold for three decades.
Foley, who died Friday at the age of 84, had a brilliant political mind, he was true statesman and he loved his hometown of Spokane and Eastern Washington.
Foley spent his last five years in Congress as the speaker, one of the most powerful positions in the U.S. government.
Yet, Foley said time and time again that his greatest honor was being elected (and re-elected) to serve the 5th Congressional District.
Foley was a partisan in the sense he was a Democrat, but he always put the best interests of the people of America ahead of ideology.
He was always civil in his political dealings when working for the betterment of his district, from making sure wheat growers were represented in the writing of farm legislation to making sure the VA Medical Center in Walla Walla stayed open. He was also civil in dealing with his colleagues in the House, whether Democrat or Republican.
But Foley’s staff, at his insistence, took on causes for his constituents (if the cause was just) with the tenacity of a wolverine.
Conservatives, moderates and liberals in the district were staunch supporters in election after election. Although he was a national political figure, he was able to touch people on a personal level. Even so, he had a few close elections against Republican challengers in the early 1980s, but was able to hold the seat with his dedication to the district.
While Foley saw compromise as essential to the art of politics and moving the nation forward, he did not waver on stands of principle — sometimes to his detriment. For example, he took the point on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of term limits for members of Congress. Some saw his stand as an affront of voters who supported term limits, but Foley — correctly in our view — saw the Constitution as sacrosanct.
Foley was defeated by Republican George Nethercutt as part of the GOP revolution of 1994.
Congress and politics in general have changed a great deal in the 20 years since Foley left office. Civility has been replaced by partisan rancor and personal attacks. It’s sad.
Those in Congress today would do well to study Thomas S. Foley’s career and emulate his style as a leader and a statesman. The nation would be better for it.