WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich, whose 1994 Republican Revolution arguably launched the modern era of partisan politics, was there.
So was GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell, sandwiched between two Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, their warring over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling barely in the rearview mirror.
For 90 minutes Tuesday, leaders and members of a fractious Congress gathered for a detente at a memorial service for former House Speaker Tom Foley. They celebrated the Spokane Democrat’s brand of bipartisanship even as they lamented its absence today.
Foley died at 84 on Oct. 18 from complications of strokes. He represented the largely rural 5th Congressional District in Eastern Washington for 15 terms. His defeat in the 1994 elections was the first time a sitting speaker had been ousted since the Civil War.
President Obama, who never met Foley, said he admired him from afar. Obama said he yearns for the type of pragmatic politics Foley embodied.
“At a time when our political system can seem more polarized and more divided than ever before, it can be tempting to see the possibility of bipartisan progress as a thing of the past,” Obama said, addressing 300 invited guests nestled in the circle of the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. “I believe we have to find our way back.”
Obama and Speaker John Boehner escorted Foley’s widow, Heather, 73, to her seat. Former President Clinton followed behind her sister, Jill Strachan.
Old lions from Foley’s 30 years in Congress studded the hall. Former Vice President Walter Mondale sat to Vice President Joe Biden’s left. Former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt sat behind Gingrich and his wife, Callista, who were in the front row.
Ninety-year-old Robert Michel, former House Republican leader, made his way to the podium on trembling legs to pay tribute to his erstwhile opponent, a man who shared his view of the House of Representatives as “one of the great creations of a free people.”
A small Japanese delegation was led by Masahiko Komura, vice president of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, who was minister of foreign affairs during Foley’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Japan after his departure from Congress.
Speaker after speaker attested to Foley’s intellect, fairness, belief in public service and willingness to pay the price for unpopular, but principled, votes.
One of the most touching tributes came from McConnell, a master partisan parliamentarian. He recalled Foley’s last-minute decision to run for Congress in 1964, which involved wiring his filing fee through Western Union from an empty bank account.
Foley, McConnell said, did not share his position on many issues.
“His faith in government, shall we say, was a little more robust than mine,” McConnell said. But Foley, he said, understood that ideological differences did not preclude working together.
Former Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, of Bremerton, who served 18 years in the House with Foley and was one of his closest friends, told of meeting Foley when Dicks was a law student at the University of Washington. Foley, Dicks said, never lost his faith in Congress as an institution that could enrich American lives.
Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, of Seattle, another close friend, recalled a dinner with Foley in 1972. Foley urged McDermott to run for Congress. McDermott said with a rueful chuckle that he decided to run (unsuccessfully) for governor instead.
Foley’s evenhandedness, McDermott said, made him “the last speaker of the whole House.”
Sitting in the audience, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Foley and Michel forged a political partnership based on mutual trust and personal connections.
“That kind of leadership does not exist today,” he said.
Gingrich, who was not among the speakers, said Foley was generous in relinquishing his speakership to Gingrich. The civility that reigned during the Foley-Michel era, Gingrich said, “was better for the institution.”
A public service for Foley will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Aloysius Church in Spokane. Gov. Jay Inslee and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are among those scheduled to attend.