Foley died after battling aspirational pneumonia for a year.
Foley squeaked out some close elections in his rural district. He rose slowly and methodically through the Democratic ranks, ascending to majority whip, majority leader and, on June 6, 1989, the 57th speaker of the House.
The cool-headed, silver-haired Washingtonian became the first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains, after Jim Wright of Texas was forced to step down.
Foley was sometimes criticized for indecisiveness and aversion to aggression. During contentious debates on health care policy near the end of his tenure, he quipped: “Everybody’s exercising sufficient leadership. It’s the followership we’re having trouble with.”
Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., who served alongside Foley, said they both “shared in the belief that compromise is a good and honorable thing.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., remembered Foley welcoming her to “the other Washington” when she was elected in 1993, and praised his work building new roads, protecting public lands and bringing federal resources to Eastern Washington.
He was defeated soon after, in 1995, as part of the “Gingrich Revolution.” He lost his seat to Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt by 4,000 votes. Foley was the first speaker to be ousted by local election since the Civil War.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Friday afternoon, saying “America has lost a legend of the United States Congress.”
“Tom’s straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties,” Obama said. “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.”
Foley served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001, then returned to D.C. to practice law and lobbying. He retired in 2008.
Memorial services will be held in Washington, D.C., and in Spokane, Wash.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Foley Institute for Public Policy & Public Service at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.