Tom Foley, who once herded recalcitrant House Democrats, spent a recent afternoon netting migratory ducks on an Imperial Family farm. The former House speaker, who used to tool around Washington in a battered blue Cadillac convertible, rode in a horse-drawn carriage to meet the emperor and buzzed over Okinawa in a U.S. F-15 fighter.
Mr. Speaker has gone to Tokyo.
Foley, 69, whose 30-year House career ended in the Republican tide of 1994 when he became the first House speaker in 132 years to be defeated for re-election, is adjusting to life as the new U.S. ambassador in a land so formal that, he says, “I go to bed with a tie on.”
The ambassador’s residence, a massive museum piece where Gen. Douglas MacArthur received a humbled Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II, is still so new to Foley that he found himself locked in one morning when he couldn’t figure out how to open the ornate front doors.
But already Foley, whose measured tone as speaker frustrated his more partisan colleagues, is winning praise for playing the conciliator in a war of words between Washington and Tokyo over Japanese economic policy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata, who has been firing back at American critics lately, praised Foley for sticking to facts and avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.
“I don’t think America could have a better person on the scene at this time than Tom Foley,” said John W. Beagles, president of Boeing Japan, whose parent company is the largest employer in Foley’s home state of Washington. “He’s a great negotiator and a fantastic parliamentarian, and he will do an excellent job bringing the two sides together.”
Foley has long been interested in Japan, traveling here often while in Congress and developing an extensive network of contacts. After President Clinton nominated him, Foley had to weather criticism that he was too “soft” on Japan, comments he called “a cheap shot.” It was unfair to conclude that he would not perform his duty “just because I admire so much about this country and its people,” he said in an interview.
Foley, with his long face and soft, hound-dog eyes, looks much as he did when he presided over the House - tall and trim, with ears, hands and feet that look as though they were drawn by an overeager cartoonist. He has a quick smile and laughs warmly. He is clearly having fun fitting himself into Japan and all its fascinations.
Foley, an Anglophile who loves pomp and ceremony, chose the elegance of a horse-drawn carriage over a simple drive to the palace to present his credentials to Emperor Akihito. To his great disappointment, though, he was told the Imperial horses were on the Imperial Farm having an Imperial rest. But schedules were juggled, the horses were called back to Tokyo and Foley, wearing a morning coat, got his carriage ride.
Foley was using a cane that day because of surgery to repair damage to the artificial knee implanted last year. When the new ambassador was about to enter the room where the emperor received him, Foley suggested leaving the cane and walking on his own. That idea was quickly quashed by a horrified Imperial protocol officer: “The emperor has been told you have a cane, so you must have a cane.”
Even familiar parts of Foley’s new life - such as his morning workout - present uniquely Japanese problems. Foley likes to go to the gym before 6, but that’s difficult for the Japanese bodyguards who must accompany him. Japan’s strict gun laws require police to turn in their guns at police stations each night, and Foley’s protectors have to go a considerable distance from their homes to retrieve their weapons before they fetch him.
There are some reminders of Congress, though. Just as in the House, seniority is everything in Japan. While Foley was only two heartbeats away from the presidency when he was speaker, now he’s one of the newest guys on Embassy Row. Until recently, Foley was the second-newest ambassador, ahead of only the Belgian envoy. So at official functions, such as the reception at the Imperial Palace for the emperor’s birthday, Foley was next to last in line.
“I think there are about six behind me now - not that I’m counting,” Foley said.
Another thing that is markedly different for Foley in Tokyo is the role of his wife, Heather. For years, she was a key player in his office, an unpaid and unofficial chief of staff. Asked what her role will be in Tokyo, she says: “I don’t know. … I didn’t think (ambassadors’) wives had a mission, except not to embarrass their husbands.”
In Washington, Heather Foley was known to be unenthusiastic about moving to Japan. “I did not want to give up my friends,” she says. “Life goes on.”
In some ways, it’s been a rough start for the Foleys. Both were hit with the flu, which has killed more than 20 people and sickened almost a million in one of Japan’s worst outbreaks in years. While taking his shoe off shortly after he arrived, Foley injured his new knee and ended up back in the United States for surgery. On top of that, a cat has taken up residence around the couple’s new home, and Heather Foley is allergic.
Heather Foley said she was still getting used to the sprawl of Tokyo and the cavernous ceilings and massive rooms of her new house. She said the grand marble foyers and spacious reception rooms are not the kinds of places where one feels comfortable hunting for a “midnight snack.”
But Foley said that so far he loves his new job and that it passes the McCormack Test - the advice then-House Speaker John McCormack, D-Mass., gave Foley, a House freshman, in 1964: “If you don’t have a sense when you come to work in the morning that it is a rare privilege to be representing (your constituents), if you are not thrilled - just quit.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.