Foley worked with leadership to get plum committee assignments. Retirement, new seniority rules, election losses and leadership battles lifted Foley into the Agriculture Committee chairmanship by age 44, a post he used to help expand the Food Stamp program. He later become Democratic whip, the caucus’ No. 3 job.
Similar good fortune elevated him to majority leader, and the downfall of Jim Wright of Texas, who was facing ethics allegations, lifted him to the speaker’s chair, where he served from 1989 until January 1995.
“I wish I could say it was merit and hard work, but I think so much of what happens in a political career is the result of circumstances that are favorable and opportunities that come about,” Foley told the AP in 2003.
He said his proudest achievements were farm bills, hunger programs, civil liberties, environmental legislation and civil rights bills. Even though his views were often considerably to the left of his mostly Republican constituents, he said he tried to stay in touch.
After leaving Congress, he joined a blue chip law firm in Washington, D.C., and earned fees serving on corporate boards. Foley and his wife, Heather, his unpaid political adviser and staff aide, had built their dream home in the capital in 1992.
In 1997, he took one of the most prestigious assignments in diplomacy, ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton. A longtime Japan scholar, Foley had been a frequent visitor to that nation, in part to promote the farm products his district produces, and he held the post for four years.
Foley’s father, Ralph, was a judge for decades and a school classmate of Bing Crosby’s. His mother, Helen, was a teacher.
Foley attended Gonzaga University in Spokane and the University of Washington Law School. He worked as a prosecutor and assistant state attorney general and as counsel for Jackson’s Senate Interior Committee for three years.
Then came the long House career.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University, said that growing up during the Depression and World War II made Foley part of a generation that worked in a more bipartisan manner.
“They saw us all on the same team,” Clayton said.