WASHINGTON — Tall and courtly, Tom Foley served 30 years in the House when partisan confrontation was less rancorous than today and Democrats had dominated for decades. He crowned his long political career by becoming speaker, only to be toppled when Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994, turned out by angry voters with little taste for incumbents.
Foley, the first speaker to be booted from office by his constituents since the Civil War, died yesterday at the age of 84 of complications from a stroke, according to his wife, Heather.
She said he had suffered a stroke last December and was hospitalized in May with pneumonia. He returned home after a week and had been on hospice care there ever since, she said.
“Foley was very much a believer that the perfect should not get in the way of the achievable,” Ms. Foley wrote in a 10-page obituary of her husband. She said he believed that “half of something was better than none.”
“There was always another day and another Congress to move forward and get the other half done,” she wrote.
“America has lost a legend of the United States Congress,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Friday, adding, “Tom’s straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties.”
Foley, who grew up in a politically active family in Spokane, Wash., represented that agriculture-heavy area for 15 terms in the House, including more than five years in the speaker’s chair.
In that job, he was third in line of succession to the presidency and was the first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains.
Though the politics of Foley’s era was less sharp-edged than today, it was not without hardball. As he became speaker in June 1989, a Republican National Committee memo was circulated called, “Tom Foley. Out of the Liberal Closet,” that said Foley’s voting record was as liberal as that of openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.