Tom Foley, the Speaker of the House from 1989 to 1995, died today at age 84. First elected to the House in 1964, Foley defeated Republican incumbent Walt Horan to begin a thirty year career on the Hill representing Washington’s 5th Congressional District. He was defeated in 1994, and reportedly then President Bill Clinton attributed the loss to Foley’s support of the Assault Weapon ban of that year. His leadership career on the Hill started in 1975 when he was named Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. In 1981 he became the House Majority Whip, then House Majority Leader in 1987. Foley picked up the Speaker’s gavel in 1989, and remained two heartbeats away from the presidency until 1995.
Born in Spokane, Washington in 1929, he was a 1951 graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, where he also received his law degree in 1957. Foley ended his legal career in 1964 to run for Congress. While he ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination, he faced Horan, an 11-term incumbent in the general election. After his defeat in 1994, Clinton appointed him as U.S. Ambassador to Japan in 1997, where he served until 2001. He returned to legal practice after his appointment, until retiring in 2008. In 1995, the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service was established at Washington State University, Pullman. Their website features a simple statement from Foley, that summarizes his thoughts on public service:
“In a cynical age, I still believe that we must summon people to a vision of public service. For, in the end, this ethic determines more than anything else whether we will have citizens and leaders of honor, judgment, wisdom, and heart. These are the qualities this institute will nurture and advance, helping this nation become what it has always been destined to be, the best hope of a free people to live in an open and just society.”
After his retirement in 2008, Foley had been in fragile health due to hip and knee replacements, and Bell’s palsy. At the time of his death, he had been in hospice care for Aspiration Pneumonia.