Tom Foley cocked his big Saint Bernard head to one side and smiled.
It had been a day cluttered with reporters, glad-handers and others wanting a piece of him. Now he had a chance to catch his breath, and the Irish storyteller in him emerged.
“It was the single greatest moment of achievement in my life, before or since,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “I thought, what’s left? This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Savoring his new title? Not quite. He was recalling his election to the “Knights of the Leash,” then a paddle-carrying, crested sweater-wearing contingent of glorified hall proctors at what is now Gonzaga Prep.
“When my name went up on the board, I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Of course, there would be other glory days for the prematurely tall, bookish son of the South Hill. There would be 13 electoral victories. There would be a steady rise to prominence in the nation’s capital, a place where seemingly few know how to pronounce the name of Foley’s hometown. And now he is a star on the national stage.
But you do not just wake up one day and find yourself living life at the head table. It has to begin somewhere.
For the new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the road to big-time political clout and front-page presence started in Spokane.
The story of Foley’s successful first run for Congress is a local legend. A chance encounter at the Spokane Club with power-broker Joseph Drumheller in July 1964 – one day before the filing deadline – convinced Foley to challenge Eastern Washington’s 22-year Republican representative, Walt Horan of Wenatchee.
Serendipity superseding strategy would become a recurring theme. “I think that sometimes planning and organization has less to do with things than accident and circumstance,” said Foley.
U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush, a longtime friend and former campaign manager, recalled there were plenty of doubters in 1964. “There were Republican businessmen, people who now say flattering things about Foley, who said, “You guys are wasting your time,” he remembered. “But Tom never reacted to that sort of stuff. It just didn’t faze him.”
Now, almost 25 years after defeating Horan with a sportsmanlike campaign that demonstrated his command of issues and cool, calming competence, the 60-year-old Foley is king of Capitol Hill.
It did not happen the way he might have chosen. But make no mistake about it: In Foley’s eyes, speaker of the house is the job. A spot on the Supreme Court is the only thing that could interest him now, said Foley’s cousin and one-time law partner, Hank Higgins.
Of his new post, Foley said, “It’s an opportunity to leave perhaps a larger influence or impact on public affairs.”
To be sure, influence and impact are nothing new. Long considered one of the most listened-to members of the House, he has in recent years assumed the mantle of respected leader and credible coalition builder. He is the insider’s insider.
Devoted to the institution of Congress, he is able to wish aloud for a “spirit of bipartisanship” and be taken at this word.
“His other interests – classical music, electronic equipment – are peripheral compared to his commitment to public policy questions,” said William First, Foley’s press secretary for years. “Public policy questions are what drive him.”
Rather than being a high profile advocate, he seems to derive his satisfaction from the role of mediator, negotiator and deal-maker. “Fine tuning,” Foley calls it.
He is, some say, uniquely qualified to fill that niche.
“Tom has gone out of his way to do all that he could to establish a personal relationship with almost everyone in the House,” said Democratic Rep. Brian Donnelly of Massachusetts, a friend of Foley. “And when all is said and done, personal relationships mean a lot more than ones that are purely political.”
To observe Foley in Washington, D.C., is to see a legislative heavyweight operating in a Who’s Who orbit. When he says, “I meant to tell the president …” it is a matter of reviewing his day, not name-dropping.
Whether presiding over a Democratic strategy session or schmoozing with a flock of ambassadors at an embassy dinner, he possesses an upright bearing, worldliness and analytical instinct admired by a steady stream of real and imagined dignitaries. They all know about the hefty congressman from Washington state, even if they have never heard of Colfax or Colville.
Almost from the time he gets up at 6 a.m., Foley’s day is a process of pumping information into his memory banks and then playing the role of that rara avis, a politician who knows what he is talking about.
“He’s overscheduled, but I think he likes it,” said Heather Foley, his feminist wife of almost 21 years and unpaid office manager.
The National Journal recently characterized his telephone-stuffed, chandelier-appointed suite in the Capitol as the place “where official Washington gets its work done.”
His royal-blue personal office has no true desk. “I’m not here to sign permits,” is Foley’s stock explanation. Anything that smacks of being an administrative chore, he turns over to a willing Heather.
A pair of JBL stereo speakers – each nearly five feet high – anchors one wall. There is a bust of Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, and a daybed discreetly tucked in one corner.
Interruptions are the norm. So are 14-hour days and 7-day work weeks. But the man who was nicknamed “Senator” in high school seldom seems flustered. At least he doesn’t stay that way.
Not long ago, while being chauffeured to an evening reception at the White House in his Lincoln Town Car, Foley was trying to reach Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell from his car phone. He needed to talk about a budget compromise. Staff members and operators fumbled for the right number. Foley was getting steamed.
At a stoplight, a sleek convertible in the next lane gently honked until Foley looked over. Behind a pair of sunglasses was Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd.
Foley put his window down. “There’s that great-looking U.S. senator,” he said, laughing.
“What a busy guy you are,” Dodd said, grinning. “Work, work, work.”
“I know,” Foley said. “And you’re off to play, play, play. I hate it.”
Foley’s natural expression is a deceptively somber glacial look. His face, dominated by ears and jowls, is a political cartoonist’s dream.
The failure of a few more follicles and baldness will be upon him. He is overweight and worries about it, fretting over how he will appear in photographs.
Although he once amazed acquaintances by managing to lose weight at the same time as giving up smoking, he is an erratic dieter. One recent lunch at the House dining room consisted of no-cal cola and a plate of linguine with red sauce.
An unwavering uniform of blue and gray suits adds to an appearance that speaks of seriousness.
But when he starts telling a humorous anecdote, often recycling the same story throughout the day, his somewhat forbidding countenance gives way to a happy, eager-to-please persona. He seems to truly enjoy making people laugh.
He does great three-second impressions of self-important characters. And he can be truly funny doing something as simple as acting the part of his own confidant, whispering, “They’re calling you cautious.”
There is another side, too. An aide to Rep. Rod Chandler tells of the time his wife, nervous to be in such a setting, found herself seated next to Foley at a dinner given by a Supreme Court justice. “He completely made her at ease by asking a lot of questions about where she grew up and what have you,” the aide said.
Foley can quote philosophers in one breath and then shift to a mildly off-color yarn, if the audience is receptive. And few have accused him of being unable to read an audience.
He can unmistakably declare a meeting or conversation concluded by stamping a no-nonsense inflection on “all right.”
He says he wants his staff to call him “Tom,” but most prefer “Mr. Foley” or “Boss.”
Foley says he’ll return to live in Spokane after his days in Congress. The idea makes some old friends chortle. His life is back there and it always will be, they say.
By most accounts, he is a creature whose natural habitat is the indoors. “He has an active aversion to fresh air,” said Spokane attorney Jim Gillespie.
For now, Foley exhibits considerable aplomb in making the transition from the world of “A” list receptions in the capital to posing for photographs in the Palouse or waiting for a table at the Onion in Spokane.
“It seems natural to me, so I guess I don’t have any great sense of it,” he said. “One thing I think is important in public life is not to lose your sense of reality, not to get Potomac disease. A lot of what happens (in Washington, D.C.) is a result of the position you hold. It can all evaporate pretty quickly.”
He admired how senators Jackson and Warren Magnuson remained the same in both Washingtons.
Those men were role models. So too, in their times, were John O’Connell – state attorney general when Foley worked in that office – and John Lally, who was Spokane county prosecutor.
Foley insists that lessons learned while a deputy prosecutor – lessons about not making decisions in the heat of anger and the pointlessness of revenge – still guide him.
“I had good teachers,” he said. “Those men were all people of principle and ability. They were interested in seeing that whatever stage of government they were involved in was a positive influence on the community it served.”
But those who know Foley say any attempt to understand him should start with recognition of his late father, Judge Ralph E. Foley.
“Tom is the great resolver,” said Quackenbush. “I think that’s a trait inherited from Judge Foley. He was the kind of person who really thought disputes should be resolved by mutual agreement. He was renowned for attempting to get people to compromise and settle their differences even in the middle of trial. Those of us who practiced in front of Judge Foley would sometimes become a little impatient because we knew he was going to call us into his chambers and ask if we had pursued every avenue in an effort to resolve the matter without the necessity of having a winner and loser.”
“Tom Foley is a gentleman, and I think he gets that from his dad,” said David Robinson, a Spokane banker and city council member who grew up with Foley on the South Hill. “His dad was very gracious and kind, and that’s reflected in Tom.”
His image as the nice guy who didn’t finish last is not new. But those who praise him say the picture of Foley as the genial, hulking Mr. Clean surrounded by sharks does him a disservice.
“There’s more to Foley than decency and intelligence,” said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and a national authority on Congress. “There’s also a remarkable sort of political skill. He’s learned who the members are, the nature of their districts, what their interests are and how you can structure situations within Congress that makes favorable votes less risky for them back home. Foley is damn good at that sort of internal stuff.”
Werner Brandt, a Foley aide since 1972, puts it another way: “One of the reasons he’s where he is today is that he is straight with people.”
Another reason is confidence. “He knows he’s good,” says Higgins.
Like any powerful person with a modicum of control over his ego, Foley also has on his side the always potent potential that simple decency on his part will translate into glowing “Boy, he treated me like I was somebody” reactions. But Robinson said he has never heard Foley talk down to anyone.
“Foley is sensitive to other people’s feelings,” said First. “In politics, that is unbelievably important.”
Quackenbush remembers a time when he and Foley were deputy prosecutors and a killing was reported. Quackenbush was on call. It was his turn to visit the crime scene. But Foley jumped in and took over the case.
“I know he did it because the victim was a little girl almost exactly the age of my daughter,” the judge said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Some say Foley is too much of a conciliator. “He would to anything to stay out of a fight,” said one longtime Foley watcher who finds the new speaker’s celebrated passion for compromise grating. “He’s very good at knowing which way the parade is headed before he makes a move.”
Quackenbush doesn’t buy that . “There isn’t a phony thing about him,” he said. “He’s sincerely interested in people. He’s sincerely interested in big issues. He could quit tomorrow and make $500,000 a year at any one of the 50 big East Coast law firms, but that’s not what drives him.”
He cares about maintaining whatever privacy is possible for Heather and himself. “There’s nothing like being able to get away, just the two of us, for a day or two,” he said.
He worries about his elderly mother, who lives on the South Hill. And he loves his sweet-faced old dog, Alice.
But the thing that truly preoccupies him is the Congress, Higgins said.
“In movies and novels, there is often a tendency to overstress the cynicism, selfishness and careerism of people in public life,” Foley said. “That has not been my experience. I’ve found that most people in government try to make a positive contribution, try to assist the forward movement of society. For myself, there is satisfaction in the small pleasures of getting particular problems solved or reaching conclusions.”
He has been accustomed to doing that outside the glare of the spotlight – at least partially. Those days could be over. Today he is front and center.
Before becoming speaker, Foley had characterized his celebrity status as “strictly junior grade.” That has changed. The shift started well before Jim Wright crashed and burned. For Foley, the difference will be felt not only in medias-mad Washington, D.C.
A little more than a week ago, he was the guest of honor at a Spokane County Democratic party dinner at the Ridpath. Certainly he was among friends. Certainly it was not unusual to see him saluted by Eastern Washington Democrats. Yes, something was different.
The line of well-wishers and seekers of reflected glory was just a little bit bigger. The standing ovations came just a little bit faster and lasted a little bit longer.
Everywhere he went, every move he made, a throng of men and women stared. It was as if, on this trip to his hometown, he was somehow new and improved.
“Have we got a congressman, or what?” gushed a beaming master of ceremonies after Foley delivered a short speech.
Actually, the correct title is “Mr. Speaker.”
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