This morning, we lost a legend in Washington and U.S. politics.
Tom Foley, who served the Evergreen State with distinction in the House of Representatives for several decades, died of complications from multiple strokes in the early hours of the day today, his family has announced. He was eighty-four.
Foley, the last Democrat to represent Washington’s 5th Congressional District, rose to be Speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 1980s, becoming the first Speaker of the House from west of Texas.
He was an effective legislator, an able listener, and an enthusiastic mentor to younger lawmakers.
His career was abruptly ended in the 1994 midterm elections, when attorney George Nethercutt ousted him from office, but he went on to serve as the United States’ ambassador to Japan on behalf of President Clinton, and he remained engaged and involved in politics throughout his final years.
I caught up with him last year with Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention; he joined the Washington State Democratic delegation’s morning breakfasts and sat with us inside Time Warner Cable Arena during the general sessions.
It was a great honor to meet with him and talk politics with him.
Following his defeat in the 1994 midterms, The Spokesman-Review praised him for serving with integrity while in office and accepting defeat with grace. Unlike his successor, he was an honorable man… a wise and thoughtful elected leader.
Remembrances and tributes have been flowing freely since the family acknowledged his passing, from the White House on down.
“Today, America has lost a legend of the United States Congress,” said President Barack Obama in a statement. “For thirty years, Tom Foley represented the people of Washington’s 5th district with skill, dedication, and a deep commitment to improving the lives of those he was elected to serve.”
“Tom’s straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties, eventually leading to his election as the 57th Speaker of the House,” the President added. “After his career in Congress, Tom served as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, where his poise and civility helped strengthen our relationship with one of our closest allies. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Tom’s wife, Heather, and the entire Foley family.”
“Jill and I were saddened to hear of the passing of former Speaker Tom Foley,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “Tom was a good friend and a dedicated public servant. It was an honor to work with him during the budget summits of the 1980s that did so much to secure our nation’s future, and when he served overseas as our nation’s Ambassador to Japan. He was a good man.”
“When I was first elected to Congress, Tom was serving as Speaker of the House, and I will never forget the way he welcomed me to ‘the other Washington,’ and the incredible example he set as a tireless public servant for our state,” said Washington’s senior senator, Patty Murray.
“Tom spent his life serving his state and his country, and his legacy is felt not only in Eastern Washington, but around the world. From his work to build new roads, protect public lands, and bring federal resources to Spokane, to his career as a statesman overseas, Tom touched the lives of everyone he encountered, whether it was a wheat farmer in Washington or a foreign dignitary in Japan.
“He will be missed by me and by all those who knew him. My thoughts are with his wife, Heather, and all of his family and loved ones today.”
“Washington lost a historic figure today with the passing of former U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley,” agreed Governor Jay Inslee. “Trudi and I extend our condolences to Heather, the entire Foley family and his friends.”
“Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, prosecutor, Ambassador to Japan – Tom Foley did all of those things in the course of his life. And at the heart of every one of those roles was a passion to serve. He served the victims of crime. He served the citizens of Spokane. He served the State of Washington.”
“And he served this great nation of ours. He was a giant at a time when bipartisan cooperation for the good of the country was the norm, not the exception. He dedicated his life to making his community, his state, and his country a better place. He did it by reaching across the aisle, by bringing people together, by finding common ground. A true statesman knows how to unite people around their mutual, shared interests, while still respecting the differences among individuals.
“That’s the example Tom set, and it’s something all public servants should strive to emulate. It was an honor to serve with him during my time in Congress.”
“America has lost a great leader and a wonderful human being,” said Senator Maria Cantwell. “Tom Foley typified what is best about political leadership, leading no matter what the consequences. Today, all Washingtonians’ thoughts and prayers are with Tom’s wife, Heather, and the Foley family.”
“Everyone liked Tom Foley… He had an unbelievable ability to communicate and fight for the people he represented. A proud son of Spokane, Tom rose to become the nation’s first Speaker of the House from west of the Rocky Mountains.”
“He became one of the most powerful politicians in the country, but he never forgot where he came from. His footprints are left all over the State of Washington and our nation, from modern agriculture and trade policy to Fairchild Air Force Base and the expansion of the Grand Coulee Dam.”
“Tom Foley will always be remembered as the King of Agriculture. He worked across the aisle to create the modern food stamp program, combating hunger in America while broadening the agriculture market.”
“Representing an agricultural district, Tom worked to make sure products grown in Washington State made it to dinner tables all around the world. He was a leader in opening Asian and other markets to Northwest wheat and cherries. And he worked with both President Carter and President Reagan to continue the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project that kept water flowing in Eastern Washington.”
“As Tom said: ‘A strong agriculture economy is absolutely essential for a strong national economy.’ Today, those words still ring true. Tom Foley’s impact will be felt for generations to come in Washington state and across our nation. Tom was a true legend, and he will never be forgotten.”
“For thirty-six years, Speaker Tom Foley served our country as a quintessential champion of the common good,” said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who became America’s first woman speaker and the second from west of Texas in 2007. “A proud son of Washington State, he stood on the strength of his principles and inspired a sense of purpose and civility that reflects the best of our democracy.”
“In his years leading the House of Representatives, Speaker Foley’s unrivaled ability to build consensus and find common ground earned him genuine respect on both sides of the aisle. The year I took office, he secured a much-needed budget compromise that restored public faith in our financial security and confidence in Congress. That characteristic passion for fairness and deep respect for others later defined his extraordinary work as President Clinton’s Ambassador to Japan.”
“Today, our country mourns the loss of a leader whose authenticity, dedication, and diplomacy will forever serve as an example to all of us who strive to make a difference through public service. It was an honor to serve with him as a colleague; it was a privilege to know him as a friend. We only hope it is a comfort to his wife Heather and his family that so many mourn their loss at this sad time.”
Obituaries and appreciations worth reading: