Tom Foley, former speaker of the House in a less combative time, dies at age 84

  • Article by: ALAN FRAM , Associated Press
  • Updated: October 18, 2013 - 5:08 PM

FILE - In this April 6, 2001 file photo, former House Speaker Tom Foley stands outside the federal courthouse in Spokane, Wash. Foley has died at the age of 84.

Photo: Jeff T. Green, Associated Press - Ap

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WASHINGTON — Tall and courtly, Tom Foley served 30 years in the House when partisan confrontation was less rancorous than today and Democrats had dominated for decades. He crowned his long political career by becoming speaker, only to be toppled when Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994, turned out by angry voters with little taste for incumbents.

Foley, the first speaker to be booted from office by his constituents since the Civil War, died Friday at the age of 84 of complications from a stroke, according to his wife, Heather.

She said he had suffered a stroke last December and was hospitalized in May with pneumonia. He returned home after a week and had been on hospice care there ever since, she said.

"Foley was very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable," Ms. Foley wrote in a 10-page obituary of her husband. She said he believed that "half of something was better than none."

"There was always another day and another Congress to move forward and get the other half done," she wrote.

"America has lost a legend of the United States Congress," President Barack Obama said in a statement Friday, adding, "Tom's straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties."

Foley, who grew up in a politically active family in Spokane, Wash., represented that agriculture-heavy area for 15 terms in the House, including more than five years in the speaker's chair.

In that job, he was third in line of succession to the presidency and was the first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains.

Though the politics of Foley's era was less sharp-edged than today, it was not without hardball. As he became speaker in June 1989, a Republican National Committee memo was circulated called, "Tom Foley. Out of the Liberal Closet," that said Foley's voting record was as liberal as that of openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Some lawmakers took the memo as hinting that Foley was gay, which he denied. The White House said then-President George H.W. Bush was "disgusted" by the incident, and Foley said he considered the episode closed.

As speaker, he was an active negotiator in the 1990 budget talks that led to Bush breaking his pledge to never raise taxes, which played a role in Bush's 1992 defeat. Even so, Bush released a statement Friday lauding Foley.

"Tom never got personal or burned bridges," said Bush. "We didn't agree on every issue, but on key issues we managed to put the good of the country ahead of politics."

Foley also let the House vote on a resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, despite "strong personal reservations and the strenuous objections of a good many" Democrats, Bob Michel, an Illinois Republican who was House minority leader at the time, recalled Friday.

"But he granted our request for a vote because it was the right thing to do. He was that kind of leader," Michel said in a statement.

Foley was also at the helm when, in 1992, revelations that many lawmakers had been allowed to overdraw their checking accounts at the House bank provoked a wave of anger against incumbents.

In 1993, he helped shepherd President Bill Clinton's budget through the House over solid Republican opposition. He also won passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite "no" votes from most Democrats.

He never served a day as a member of the House's minority party. The Republican capture of the chamber in the 1994 gave them control for the first time in 40 years and Foley, it turned out, was their prize victim.

He was replaced as speaker by his nemesis, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., leader of a group of rebellious younger Republicans who rejected the less-combative tactics of established GOP leaders like Michel.

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