On April 21, nearly 200 civic and community leaders gathered in downtown Spokane to honor and reminisce about legendary former Speaker of the House Tom Foley and preview a new documentary about his legacy, appropriately titled “The Gentleman Speaker.”
In today’s hyperpartisan world, you might think the gathering was argumentative, angry, and partisan. But it was just the opposite. Like Foley himself, the evening was civil, pragmatic, can-do, and optimistic. It was a quintessential Spokane gathering.
As the longtime Washington state Democratic party chair Karen Marchioro often explained, “You can’t understand Tom Foley unless you go to Spokane.”
In 1990, the New York Times described Spokane as uniquely stable and tolerant: “This is conservative country in the classic American sense: nonideological, pragmatic…most people in Spokane are comfortable with stability, both social and political, and tolerant of differences, so long as they are within reason.”
In 1994, Tom Foley was only the third sitting Speaker in history to be defeated for re-election, and the first since the Civil War. But was there lingering bitterness from Foley toward George Nethercutt, the man who was deemed the “giant killer” who ended his 30-year House career?
On the contrary, Foley accepted the results of the close election (refused to ask for a recount), hosted a reception for the congressman-elect, and most recently, the Speaker’s longtime political advisor, chief of staff, and now widow, Heather Foley, graciously asked Nethercutt to serve on the Foley Institute’s Board of Directors with an aim to improve public discourse and bipartisanship.
The evening would have very likely met the approval of the late Speaker, both in terms of the beautiful and humble praise Foley received and his efforts to work across the aisle, restoring trust and faith to politics, civil discourse, and a beleaguered institution he led for five years.
Indeed, Foley had a profound public service legacy and accomplished a great deal working with Republican President George H.W. Bush; he ushered into law significant, hallmark measures to protect individuals with disabilities. He made the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) the laws of the land.
He also shepherded into law the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 that established the “pay-as-you-go” process to prevent new spending or tax changes from adding to the federal debt – thus paving the way for future President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress to pass the first balanced budget in 27 years in 1997. Sadly, that was the last time it did!
The emcee for the evening was former Republican Mayor of Spokane David Condon, while the current mayor, Nadine Woodward, served as a co-host with Mrs. Foley. Television personality and former Hardball host Chris Matthews shared reflections about his time working with Foley when he served as chief of staff to another legendary Speaker, Tip O’Neil.
Liberal Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell highlighted and applauded the work of Conservative Eastern Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
And for a short and important few hours, a somewhat splintered political community, certainly reflecting many other parts of the country, came together, enjoyed a meal, viewed excerpts of an exceptional documentary, and reflected on the accomplishments and the decency of the former Speaker.
“If Americans are hoping for dynamism in the speakership, they are likely to be disappointed by Foley,” the New York Times article explained in 1990, “but if they are looking for a man who embodies decency in an age of scandal, intellect in an era of emotion, and commitment to public service in an era of self-absorption, then they can be assured that the House of Representatives is in good hands.”
To understand Foley, you must go to Spokane. Once again, Spokane and Eastern Washington with its humble and commonsense values, mutual respect, and get-it-done approach, can lead the country, restoring positive public discourse and bipartisanship.
We in Spokane and Eastern Washington owe it to the former Speaker and future generations to do no less.
Edmund O. Schweitzer III is President and Chief Technology Officer Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman.
This column has been updated to correct the date of the gathering.
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