Ex-House Speaker Tom Foley dead at 84

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calls him 'quintessential champion of the common good'

Former House Speaker Tom Foley and his wife, Heather, in 1994.
Jeff Vinnick/Reuters

Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who lost his seat when Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994, has died of complications from a stroke. He was 84.

Foley spent 30 years in the House, including more than five years as speaker. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Japan for four years in the Clinton administration.

His wife, Heather, said he had suffered the stroke last December and was hospitalized in May with pneumonia. He returned home to Washington, D.C., after a week and had been on hospice care there ever since, she said.

The son of a judge, Foley was first elected to Congress in 1964 from eastern Washington state as part of the Democratic landslide behind President Lyndon Johnson, ousting an 11-term Republican incumbent.

He worked his way up from chairman of the Agriculture Committee to Democratic whip, the No. 3 spot in the House, in 1981 and then to party leader in 1986. When Rep. Jim Wright of Texas stepped down as speaker in 1989 during an ethics scandal, Foley was elevated to the top job.

In 1994, he became the first speaker to be voted out of office since Republican William Pennington of New Jersey in 1860. Foley was ousted by a Spokane lawyer, Republican George Nethercutt, who won by 4,000 votes in the mostly rural, heavily Republican district.

Foley wasn't the victim of scandal or charges of gross incompetence. Instead, his ability as speaker to bring home federal benefits was a point Nethercutt used against him, accusing him of pork-barrel politics.

He was replaced as speaker by his nemesis, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who later called Washington state "ground zero" of the sweep that gave Republicans their first control of the House in 40 years.

'Forthright and warmhearted'

After leaving Congress, Foley could have retired on his $124,000 pension and his investment wealth, but he went on to have two more careers — diplomacy and the law.

He joined a blue-chip law firm in Washington, D.C., by one account earning $400,000, plus fees he earned serving on corporate boards. Foley and his wife, who was his unpaid political adviser and staff aide, had built their dream home in the capital in 1992.

In 1997, he took a pay cut to take one of the most prestigious assignments in diplomacy: ambassador to Japan. A longtime Japan scholar, Foley had been a frequent visitor to that nation, in part to promote the farm products his district produces.

"Diplomacy is not, frankly, very different" from the dealmaking, consensus and common courtesy that a successful politician needs, he said.

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."

She added, "Speaker Foley's unrivaled ability to build consensus and find common ground earned him genuine respect on both sides of the aisle."

In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised Foley.

"Forthright and warmhearted, 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." 

Wire services 

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter