Tom Foley: Remembering the Man from Spokane


Given our current deadlocked democracy, it’s hard to remember that three decades ago we had a Speaker from this Washington who presided over the U.S. House of Representatives with a commitment to rationality, civility, and getting stuff done that was in the national interest.

In their book Tom Foley: The Man in the Middle (University Press of Kansas), authors R. Kenton Bird and John C. Pierce write of the man from Spokane: “He was inclusive, bipartisan and committed to cooperation, comity, evenhandedness, and institutional effectiveness of the legislative process.” Foley did so in the face of growing “partisan polarization and political attacks.”

What a monumental difference from today. We have in Kevin McCarthy a strident partisan Speaker, unsteady at the helm, who panders to the most extreme forces in the Republican caucus. The “peoples’ house,” which once enacted Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, has recently busied itself with amendments to ban “critical race theory” and restrict abortion access for service members.

In stature, Speaker McCarthy could hide in a field of stubble. When Foley assumed the job in 1989, by contrast, he told colleagues: “I am deeply conscious of the obligations I bear as Speaker of the House. I am Speaker of the whole House, not of one party but of each and every member of the House, undivided by the center aisle. I pledge to protect the rights and privileges of every member.”

Five years later, however, “Big Tom” would be the first House Speaker in 160 years to lose his bid for reelection, defeated after 30 years of representing Eastern Washington in Congress. He was succeeded as Speaker by Newt Gingrich, then and now a polarizer and smear merchant. He was the sort of guy who served divorce papers on his first wife when she was recovering from surgery and proposed open marriage to her successor.

Bird and Pierce suggest that Foley hung on so long, a Democrat in a conservative and largely rural constituency, as a “transactional” politician. He delivered for his district, whether it was keeping Fairchild Air Force Base open, or protecting wheat farmers in the Farm Bill and promoting agricultural exports. Foley served as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee for six years.

He was more than transactional. The American West had a tradition of sending its most promising and able young men (but very few women), of both parties, to uphold its interests. Tom Foley was product of prominent families, the Higgins of Lincoln County and the Foleys of Spokane County. His father, Ralph Foley, was a superior court judge. Impatient as a Gonzaga student, Big Tom crossed the Cascades for the intellectual atmosphere of the University of Washington and its law school.

He developed sophisticated tastes, Saville Row suits and sophisticated hi fi systems, plus knowledge and appreciation of Japanese culture. Yet he remained “Spokane’s Tom Foley.” During an easy reelection year, TV advisers drove home the message with a spot showing Tom and Heather Foley canoeing on the Spokane River. The congressman outfitted himself for the occasion with new threads from Eddie Bauer. Heather Foley stepped on the gunnels going ashore, tipping the canoe and depositing her husband in the river.

More than image, it was heritage in a district where much of the population stayed put. Foley was riding one summer in Ione, Washington’s, annual Down River Days parade. He was approached by a little guy with a cocked eye, who shook hands and loudly thanked the congressman. For what, asked this scribe, who was profiling Foley. “His dad sent me to jail when I was a kid,” came the reply. “’Sure straightened me out.”

A writer friend, who migrated to the UW from Spokane, bestowed his own nickname for the Inland Empire – the “Ingrown Empire.” Foley had the problem, Bird and Pierce write, that his district was always conservative. Big Tom’s vote percentages fell when a Democrat occupied the White House.

The authors quote Bruce Reed, an Idaho boy who grew up to be Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser: “It was a long way from the center of the House Democratic Caucus to the center of the country. Speaker Foley was from a potentially heartland district – not that far from the coast, basically a rural district – just had to straddle two horses.”

Foley was a longtime opponent of gun legislation, past recipient of the NRA’s “Defender of Individual Rights” award. But there was a mass killing on home turf. A discharged airman rampaged through the hospital at Fairchild, using an MAK-90 semiautomatic rifle to kill four people and wound 23 others. Foley toured the scene, and announced his support for banning assault weapons, saying: “I think that these weapons are not necessarily related to . . . sporting and other recreational uses.”

The National Rifle Association took aim at him and spent $300,000 to defeat its former ally. Charlton Heston flew to Seattle to speak at a fundraiser for challenger George Nethercutt. Heston wouldn’t go to Spokane but cut two TV commercials denouncing Foley.

The authors depict Foley in 1994 as the victim of a perfect political storm. The NRA had him targeted, and so did a powerful right-wing lobby, the National Federation of Independent Business.  Foley (and Republican Rep. Henry Hyde) had signed on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn Washington’s term limits. A molehill of a scandal, members cashing checks at the House bank without deposits to cover them, had been blown up to symbolize the arrogance of Congress and provide a rationale for term limits.

As Republican House leader Georgia’s Gingrich set out to destroy the reputation of Congress in order to seize control of it.  The Clinton Administration was not popular — witness Democrats’ loss of six seats in Washington state.  A hate-talk radio host in Spokane, Todd Herman, called Foley “the odious eared one” and “the sphincter of the House.” Ross Perot came to Spokane to stump for Nethercutt.

It’s remarkable, given the volume of abuse, that Big Tom lost by less than 6,000 votes. He went back to work in the lame duck session of Congress, finding himself on the same side as Gingrich – and opposed by fellow Democratic leaders – in completing legislation on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Wise or unwise, it was his last bow to bipartisanship.

Foley went on to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, his Senate confirmation noisily opposed by one of the vulgarians elected to Congress in 1994, U.S. Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash. He did yeoman duty in Tokyo, defusing controversy and tension over the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. On a sweltering day in Okinawa – a typhoon had just passed by — Foley worked with Clinton to edit out potentially offensive phrases from a speech the 42nd president was about to give.

The authors of this new biography know their House Speaker. They tell a famous story about an unsteady Foley riding a wayward horse at the Omak Stampede. They write of Foley’s small circle of trusted longtime aides – a marked contrast with, say, today’s Jayapal staff — and Big Tom’s powers of one-on-one persuasion. They correctly depict Heather Foley’s role, as unpaid chief of staff, taking charge of “administrative details for which Tom Foley had no aptitude or interest.”

One episode is told to show how different the House has become. In Foley’s days, Washington’s congressional delegation was renowned for bipartisan cooperation. It would break bread together, discuss and hammer out agreement on legislation important to the state. In the spring of 1979, the delegation worked out boundaries for an Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in the “land of 600 lakes” between Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes.

Seeking to break the story, this then-green reporter reached Heather Foley on the phone. (Big Tom was off at a fundraiser.) She toyed with an impatient scribe for 45 minutes before going to a coffee table where her husband had put down a copy of the Alpine Lakes legislation. I said something like “All Right!!!” learning that the great Ponderosa pine forests of Ingalls Creek would be protected.

“Aren’t you showing your biases?” she asked. Heck yes!

Looking at what the House has become, and its current wretched leader, most sensible readers will miss the values and intellect Big Tom brought to the Speakership. Their new book, Tom Foley: The Man in the Middle, is about a politician who represented the better angels of our nature. Foley brought honor to the House. We need to be reminded of such folk.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. This, Foley’s defeat, was when I began to pay closer attention to Congress. Up til then, it had mostly been just reading newspapers. I also began to have a visceral uneasiness with the GOP. How I long for those days.

  2. Nothing I write for Post Alley lacks at least one typo. Congress passed the Alpine Lakes Wilderness bill in 1976, not 1979.
    Gov. Dan Evans persuaded President Ford to go against the veto recommendation of his Ag Secretary, and sign the bill.

    • Thanks for the history. As a member of organized labor and at the WSLC conventions, we would sit on the roof of the hotel (Ridpath in Spokane) late into the evening and Tom would hold court. Such an honor and for Tom to be so casual. Yep, those were the days.

  3. Nethercut.
    The beginning of Republicans screaming TERM LIMITS, for votes with no intention of honoring their pledge.
    Gingrich, destroy the Country to gain power.

    What a Legacy for Republicans

  4. If I recall correctly, the P-I interviewed a voter in Foley’s district after he failed to win Reelection. Asked whether he regretted losing a Congressman with Foley’s power as Speaker and getting instead a freshman Representative with minimal influence, the unnamed voter expressed surprise, having assumed that the Speakership would get passed on to the new guy. For of course, the gavel passed to Neutron Newt.
    I have always been dubious about how democracy can avoid self-destruction when even such clueless people have the right to vote.

  5. Tom Foley was a man’s man. He did not pull punches and he did not punch without a lot of thought how its outcome would benefit Congress. It isn’t just McCarthy that does not hold a candle to this man’s integrity, it is 99% of the entire GOP.

    When the GOP had Nethercutt run against and oust Foley the entire Inland Empire of this state gave up the best Chess piece they had in DC by voting Foley out of the 3rd most important position in US Gov’t. And what did Netherdrawers give the region in return? I’m asking you all because I saw him do nothing and certainly term limits were never in his chatter throughout his tenure.

  6. Toms end started when 24 hour news began on CNN. Not having enough news to fill the 24hr news cycle CNN started paying attention to Congress. Gentlemen deals over dinner went out the window because of the scrutiny of both the Republican Leadership and the media. Tom was the last person to use Civility in his daily life.

  7. I read Joel Connelly for years and enjoyed this report on Foley. That was a great era. A governor who cared, (Evans) a couple of senators( Jackson and Magnuson) and politicians who had the nation’s welfare in their hearts.
    I guess I’m to old now, but I remember the good old days.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.