Tom Foley’s short stint in private life is over.
After spending half his life on Capitol Hill, and only a few years as a private attorney, he’s now America’s main man in Tokyo.
He’ll be sworn in next week as ambassador to Japan, then in mid-November will present his credentials to the Japanese emperor. That’s the final - and largely ceremonial - step in becoming Ambassador Foley.
The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination Monday, ending citizen Foley’s three years in private life that started when he lost his bid for re-election in 1994. He had settled in as a partner at the high-powered law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, for what he described as a satisfying and interesting career.
But the opportunity in Tokyo drew him back.
“The futures of our two countries are tied together,” he said in Spokane minutes after he was confirmed. “To be the U.S. ambassador at this time is a great honor and a great challenge.”
A few days earlier, Foley talked about getting ready for his new life in a two-hour interview in his law office just off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.
He refused to discuss trade or security policies in detail, saying that would be premature.
During his 30 years in the House, Foley traveled to Japan many times, often to pry open the market for Washington state products. While even Foley’s adversaries describe him as diplomatic, he said he’s offended Japanese sensibilities on occasion by raising his voice.
“An American business representative comes in, lays the cards on the table and makes the case for the contract, then wants a quick decision,” Foley said. “The Japanese, on the other hand, don’t favor the quick. You can easily be considered too abrupt, too quick, to want results too fast.”
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, his predecessor, said negotiations with Japan move slowly because the country decides by consensus. That strengthens those who hold out for the status quo.
“Japanese businesses in an industry work together in ways that in this country would violate anti-trust laws,” Mondale said.
Mondale sees Foley’s understanding of Japan as “a tremendous asset,” but others have criticized Foley for being too soft on the Asian nation.
Alan Tonelson of the U.S. Business & Industrial Council, a lobbying group for the manufacturing industry, says Foley is no different than other people who have directed American policy toward Japan in the last half-century.
“Their highest priority is to maintain the U.S.-Japan security alliance,” Tonelson said. “They won’t jeopardize this by bringing up trade issues too aggressively.”
Foley refused to respond to that complaint, saying only he’s clear on which country employs him.
He heads overseas as trade disputes with Japan fill the news. Earlier this month, the Federal Maritime Commission almost banned Japanese ships from U.S. harbors when the shipping industry didn’t pay a $4 million fine.
The two countries also recently sparred over flat-glass exports from the United States and Japan’s restrictions on air transportation.
The trade deficit with Japan continues to climb. So far in 1997, it amounts to $35.4 billion, up from $30.1 billion for the same 8-month period last year, according to the Commerce Department. Experts say the deficit will get bigger as Japan pushes exports to bolster its lagging economy.
A few weeks after Foley arrives in Japan, he’ll be joined by his wife, Heather.
Foley said his wife, who was his unpaid chief of staff for many of his 30 years in Congress, has “adjusted” to the idea of going overseas.
An ambassador’s spouse does not have official responsibilities, but often hosts receptions and serves as “an aide and confidant to the ambassador,” the Foreign Service Institute said.
“Heather will have to be careful,” said Tony Blankley, former press secretary for Newt Gingrich, who succeeded Foley as speaker. Life as a diplomat’s wife “is a more traditional cultural setting for women,” he said.
Blankley credits her with being an essential part of Foley’s effectiveness. “She’s smart, tough, tactical - a force to be reckoned with,” he said. But she will need to appreciate the new setting, he added.
Heather Foley, who rarely talks on the record to the news media, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Foley has some adjusting to do himself. For one, the Tokyo embassy is huge, with a staff of more than 750, and a budget that last year topped $31.1 million.
His new home will be the 10-bedroom ambassador’s residence, which has a staff of 10, including a chef, two assistant cooks, a housekeeper and a majordomo.
Despite the trappings, the job will be “a financial hit,” as Foley put it. His salary drops to $123,100, from the $393,940 he made at Akin Gump. His $123,800 government pension is suspended, and he must resign from corporate boards, positions that netted him about $50,000 last year.
The taxpayer-funded Office of the Former Speaker, which Foley had in Spokane, will close by the end of the year. Federal law allows former speakers to have such an office for five years after they leave Congress, but another law says he can’t keep that office when he becomes ambassador.
Compared to life in Congress, where each member is substantially free to pursue his or her own agenda, Foley now faces the well-defined role of an ambassador to one of this country’s most important allies.
To prepare for the post, Foley attended a two-week seminar for ambassadors-to-be at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va. There, the nominees and their spouses got a small dose of embassy life.
Former ambassadors led the seminar, which touched on embassy organization, security and press relations. When nominees headed to a classified briefing, the spouses got a lesson in protocol.
One thing Tom Foley learned at the seminar surprised him: There’s no money in the embassy’s budget for meetings involving only American citizens. The cost for these affairs, even if the president is invited, comes out of the ambassador’s pocket.
“It’s a small thing, but if I have a staff breakfast,” Foley tapped his chest indicating he would have to pay. “If I entertain American business people,” he tapped again.
Foley said he’s hoping for visitors from his old Eastern Washington congressional district. In Congress, Foley’s office doors were wide open for visiting constituents. Heather Foley often took residents on meandering tours of the Capitol.
He said he’d like to see former constituents on the steps of the ambassador’s residence, adding with a laugh, “but you hope they don’t all come at once.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo