President Clinton ended months of speculation Friday by saying he would nominate former House Speaker Tom Foley to fill the empty post of ambassador to Japan.
The announcement was hailed by Northwest trade advocates and business representatives as an ideal appointment.
“It’s an absolute hit,” said Bud Coffey, former chief lobbyist for the Boeing Co., one of the nation’s chief exporters. “Foley understands ceremony and its value in Japan, as well as having a hell of a lot of substance.”
Gretchen Borck, director of issues for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, called the selection “a slam dunk.”
Japan is the second-largest buyer of soft white wheat grown in the Northwest, buying more than 40 million bushels last year.
“For wheat, it will open the market up more. It will also open it up for other commodities,” she said of the appointment.
Foley is respected by leaders of both parties and well-known around this country, Borck said. “I can’t see him not getting it.”
In Japan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hiroshi Hashimoto issued a statement calling Foley, who held the top House post from 1989 to 1994, “an influential figure,” adding that he has promoted relations between the two countries during his long career as a politician.
Most sources said the nomination was logical: Foley has worked with Japanese prime ministers and cabinet officials for decades and travels to that country regularly. But the move has been rumored for nearly six months.
Sources speculated Friday the delay was a result of the Clinton administration checking the nomination with senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hold hearings on the appointment.
Friday’s announcement was still technically not the formal nomination, but rather an “intent to nominate” issued from Martha’s Vineyard, where Clinton is vacationing.
When the announcement came, Foley was vacationing in Barbados with his wife, Heather, and did not have an immediate comment, spokeswoman Janet Gilpatrick said.
Foley is immensely respected in Japan, said Denny Miller, a former Senate chief of staff who tracks legislation for Northwest interests, including the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute.
“The Japanese are very big on stature,” Miller said. “Tom Foley has the kind of stature and access to the president that position needs.”
If approved by the Senate, Foley would fill the position left vacant by former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Some advocates of a tougher trade stance with Japan have questioned whether Foley would be able to win such negotiations.
“Those who say he’s not a tough negotiator don’t know Tom,” Miller said. “You have to broker deals between disparate parties to rise to the top of the House like he did.”
Foley was among the state’s top politicians who spent years negotiating with the Japanese to open their markets to Washington-grown apples and other fruit.
“It’s fantastic news for our commodity and for the region in general,” said Chris Schlect, president of the National Horticultural Council, which represents Washington, Oregon and Idaho tree-fruit growers in the international market.
Sales in Japan have not gone as well as growers would like, Schlect said. Sweet cherries sell well but other products, such as Washington apples aren’t moving as quickly.
Schlect hopes Foley, who once served as House Agriculture Committee chairman, could help change that.
“Most times ambassadors are from New York or California, or from backgrounds that have nothing to do with agriculture,” Schlect said.
Foley, 68, was a 15-term congressman from Spokane, first elected in 1964 after serving as a legal adviser to U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. He served as majority whip and majority leader. He rose to the top position in the House in 1989 when he replaced Jim Wright, who resigned in the face of ethical violations.
In his first three years as speaker, Foley often served as the Democratic Party’s spokesman on key issues as a counterpoint to George Bush and the Republican-controlled White House. He was a master of bipartisan agreements on fiscal matters while challenging Bush on such policies as the Gulf War and the capital gains tax cut.
In his last two years as speaker, Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency. But Clinton stumbled on such issues as gays in the military and health care reform, while Foley was beset by scandals among House members and constant sniping from conservatives led by then Minority Whip Newt Gingrich.
In the 1994 Republican tidal wave, Foley lost his re-election campaign to Spokane attorney George Nethercutt, and Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
After his election loss, Foley became a partner in Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, a large Washington, D.C., law firm and lobbying group.
He helped set up the Foley Institute at Washington State University and maintained an office in Spokane.
That office of the former speaker, which by law is paid for by taxpayers for five years after any speaker leaves office, must close if the Senate confirms Foley’s nomination.
There was no word when the Senate would hold hearings on the nomination. Clinton’s announcement came after the offices of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had closed for the three-day Labor Day weekend.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Jim Camden Staff writer Staff writer Hannelore Sudermann contributed to this report.
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