As a young chief of staff to House Speaker Tip O’Neill following Democrats’ sound defeat in the 1980 election, Chris Matthews was charged with finding a counterpoint to President Ronald Reagan’s popular weekly radio addresses.
No Democrat wanted to go on national radio and challenge the former movie star-turned politician. Matthews, a U.S. Capitol police officer-turned Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, suggested O’Neill’s majority whip.
“We needed someone who could agree with Reagan but also take some shots at him,” Matthews said. “So I said, ‘How about Tom Foley?’ ”
Matthews switched into the Massachusetts accent of his former boss, recalling the moment.
“He’ll never do it,” O’Neill predicted to Matthews.
But the Washington lawmaker did take up the mantle, on his way to becoming the 49th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and holding the highest position of power a representative from Eastern Washington has held in Congress. The exchange between Matthews and Foley was one of several stories shared Thursday night at the unveiling of a documentary funded by the Washington State University institute of public policy bearing Foley’s name before a sold-out crowd at the Riverside Event Place in downtown Spokane.
Foley’s widow, Heather, received a standing ovation from the crowd of local politicians, business and nonprofit leaders.
“As many of you know, I’m sure all of you that met my husband, he delighted in telling stories,” Heather Foley said.
“And, as his wife, there were times that I sort of had to grit my teeth. ‘Here we go again,’” Heather Foley quipped, to laughter.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell recalled when Tom Foley asked her to go down to the dining room of the House of Representatives to, in Foley’s words, “say hello to an up-and-coming member of Parliament.”
“In the corner of the member’s dining room, sat Tony Blair,” Cantwell said. “And believe me, I had nothing to say, that Tom Foley would send me down there to meet such an important person.”
Matthews, the longtime MSNBC host of “Hardball” who narrated the documentary film, joined in the chorus of praise for Tom Foley’s ability to bridge partisan divides. It’s a quality, Matthews said, that’s missing in Congress today.
“A lot of the old traditions are gone,” Matthews said.
“This is a great celebration of a great man,” Matthews added.
Matthews, in remarks at Washington State University in Pullman on Thursday, praised current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while acknowledging that Democrats were likely in for a drubbing in November – the same kind that ousted Foley from office in 1994.
“It’s gonna be a rough year, and the future of the Democratic Party eludes me,” Matthews told the group.
In an interview later, Matthews said Democrats don’t have “a whole lot of width” in the 2022 midterms, with Pelosi trying to pull together a coalition of moderates and progressives, the latter of whom were promised policy achievements that haven’t materialized.
“Her imperative is to keep the left in the tent,” Matthews said. “They want so much. They demand it. They had demands and they had to be told that they would be met, in order to get them on board.”
But Matthews, a lifelong Democrat who said he grew up with Republican parents in an Irish Catholic family in Pennsylvania, also said he couldn’t understand the GOP’s fealty to President Donald Trump. Matthews implicitly criticized Trump’s refusal to accept the certified results of the 2020 election.
“That’s how politics works. You win some, you lose some,” said Matthews. “You don’t get that? You shouldn’t run for office. No one in America should run for office unless they accept (that) basic doctrine.”
Matthews also criticized Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s approach to governance, which he said was focused on blocking and obstructing laws in cunning parliamentary ways.
“People think he’s Elmer Fudd, and he’s Bugs Bunny,” Matthews quipped.
Before Foley gave that address pairing with Reagan, he gave his boss’ speechwriter, Matthews, some notes on the text. Matthews wanted Foley to criticize Reagan, but also urge American support for a tax bill that Democrats and the president supported in 1982.
“I write the speech. Kick the hell out of Reagan,” Matthews said. “But at the end, I said, ‘On this one, he’s right,’” referring to the bill the president and Democrats supported.
“(Foley) said, ‘I don’t want any of this stuff in there,’” Matthews recalled Foley saying of his attacks on Reagan. “’I want to say, the president wants this tax bill, and the president’s right.’”
Matthews said Foley gave that revised speech. And Foley, filmed in 2007, mentions it in the documentary as a moment that showed bipartisanship could still be good politics.
“My percentage points, somebody told me, in the district went up about 15 points overnight,” Foley said. “Because the public does want to see occasions where the parties don’t bicker, and don’t argue.”