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Near the close of a divisive month, the nation’s political leaders gathered Tuesday in Statuary Hall to pay tribute to former Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a 30-year veteran of Capitol Hill lauded for his embrace of bipartisanship and comity, and offered their memories of a bygone era of compromise.
“The last speaker of the whole House,” was how Rep. Jim McDermott characterized his fellow Washington Democrat and close friend, who died Oct. 18 at age 84.
Foley held the gavel as the “Speaker from Spokane” from 1989 until leaving office in 1995 and brought “a scholar’s intellect and a disciple’s passion” to the chamber, McDermott said — “A style of leadership that we have not recently seen.”
In the front row of the audience were three of the individuals who have held the gavel since Foley’s departure: former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
President Barack Obama, seated one chair away from Boehner during the hourlong ceremony, also took a shot at current leadership during his tribute, praising Foley for a “personal decency that helped him bring civility and order to a Congress that demanded both, and still does.”
Standing before the official Speaker’s Lobby portrait of the 6-foot-4-inch, silver-haired lawyer, Obama said the polarized political environment could make it “tempting to see the possibility of bipartisan progress as a thing of the past,” but he said public servants like Foley are needed now more than ever.
Boehner praised Foley’s measured path from Agriculture Committee chairman to majority whip, majority leader and, finally, speaker.
He quoted other Republican elders, such as former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, as praising Foley for being someone who could “tell you to go to hell and make you feel good about going there.”
Pelosi lauded Foley’s ability to “build consensus” and recalled how he bucked a long history of opposing gun control measures and helped win House passage of a 1994 ban on assault weapons in the wake of a shooting rampage at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Wash.
President Bill Clinton also recalled the assault weapons ban as an instance of political courage. He said Foley warned him when the bill was passed of the “blood on the floor” in the upcoming election.
It was prescient, as months later Republicans seized control of the House as he predicted, and Foley became the first speaker to be booted from office by his constituents since the Civil War.
He lost his seat in the 5th District, a wheat-growing area he defended for years as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, to Republican George Nethercutt.
Clinton shared with the audience the content of a letter he received from Foley shortly after the defeat, asking to use the lame-duck session of Congress to establish the World Trade Organization.
“He was, in short, dying inside, heartbroken, and he still showed up for work,” Clinton said. “He still believed that the purpose of political service was to get the show on the road.”
Former Rep. Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat who served in the House from 1977 through the end of the 112th Congress, also paid tribute to one of Foley’s crowning legislative achievements — the farm bill system in which federal farm subsidies were linked to the food stamp program, creating an alliance of farm-state and urban lawmakers.
“Bringing these two issues together allowed Tom to build support for both,” Dicks said. “Tom believed in and practiced civility and bipartisanship. His view was that after the elections were over, Democrats and Republicans should work together to deal with the national legislative agenda.”
One of the Republicans with whom Foley worked most closely, former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., also paid tribute to his civility.
Michel, who presided when Foley gave his farewell speech to Congress nearly two decades ago, said, “I only hope that the legislators who walk through here day by day will feel his spirit, learn from it, and be humbled by it.
“That’s what I have to say in honor of my dear friend Tom Foley,” he closed, to a resounding round of applause.