Foley was defeated in 1994 by 4,000 votes by Spokane attorney George Nethercutt, a Republican who supported term limits, which the speaker fought. Also hurting Foley was his ability to bring home federal benefits, which Nethercutt used by accusing him of pork-barrel politics.
On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Foley "forthright and warmhearted" in a written statement.
"Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Boehner said. "That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any speaker or representative."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Foley "a quintessential champion of the common good" who "inspired a sense of purpose and civility that reflects the best of our democracy."
In a 2004 Associated Press interview, Foley spoke about how voters did not appreciate the value of service as party leader and said rural voters were turning against Democrats.
"We need to examine how we are responding to this division ... particularly the sense in some rural areas that the Democratic Party is not a party that respects faith or family or has respect for values," he said. "I think that's wrong, but it's a dangerous perception if it develops as it has."
Foley loved the classics and art, hobnobbing with presidents, and his steady rise to power in Congress and diplomacy. He had a fine stereo system in his Capitol office.
He also loved riding horseback in parades and getting his boots dirty in the rolling hills of the Palouse country that his pioneer forebears helped settle.
Legendary Washington Democratic Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson was his mentor and urged his former aide to run for the House in 1964, which turned out to be a landslide year for Democrats.
Foley worked with leadership to get plum committee assignments. Retirement, new seniority rules, election losses and leadership battles lifted Foley into the Agriculture Committee chairmanship by age 44, a post he used to help expand the Food Stamp program. He later become Democratic whip, the caucus' No. 3 job.
Similar good fortune elevated him to majority leader, and the downfall of Jim Wright of Texas, who was facing ethics allegations, lifted him to the speaker's chair, where he served from 1989 until January 1995.
"I wish I could say it was merit and hard work, but I think so much of what happens in a political career is the result of circumstances that are favorable and opportunities that come about," Foley told the AP in 2003.
He said his proudest achievements were farm bills, hunger programs, civil liberties, environmental legislation and civil rights bills. Even though his views were often considerably to the left of his mostly Republican constituents, he said he tried to stay in touch.
After leaving Congress, he joined a blue chip law firm in Washington, D.C., and earned fees serving on corporate boards. Foley and his wife, Heather, his unpaid political adviser and staff aide, had built their dream home in the capital in 1992.
In 1997, he took one of the most prestigious assignments in diplomacy, ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton. A longtime Japan scholar, Foley had been a frequent visitor to that nation, in part to promote the farm products his district produces, and he held the post for four years.
Foley's father, Ralph, was a judge for decades and a school classmate of Bing Crosby's. His mother, Helen, was a teacher.
Foley attended Gonzaga University in Spokane and the University of Washington Law School. He worked as a prosecutor and assistant state attorney general and as counsel for Jackson's Senate Interior Committee for three years.
Then came the long House career.