The Capitol memorial Tuesday for former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., attracted testimonials from friends, political adversaries, and fellow Democrats who knew Foley well — and one who didn’t know him personally, President Obama. All shared their deep respect for the man who helped get President Clinton’s budget through, helped force President George H.W. Bush to back down on his no-new-taxes pledge, and then lost his seat in 1994 after a 30-year career.
Foley died this month at the age of 84.
Such ceremonial moments don’t happen too often in the Capitol, and when they do, they make for weird optics; powerful people who constantly trade barbs with each other are forced to sit right next to each other in a very public space, wearing sullen or dignified faces and offering the warm words that such occasions demand.
Sitting just feet away from the podium were three of Foley’s successors: former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and current Speaker John Boehner, R”‘Ohio. Also in attendance were Vice President Joe Biden, former President Clinton, and former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Foley’s memorial provided an opportunity to assess what it takes to run the House, a touchy topic given that Congress has just come off a prolonged government shutdown and a bitter fight that brought the nation to the brink of default.
When recalling how Foley became speaker in 1989, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said, “I know now that he was about to become the last speaker of the whole House. He believed that the speaker was the speaker for the whole House, and he believed that to his very core.”
McDermott added: “He led the House with fairness and comity, a style of leadership we haven’t seen — we’ve recently looked for, but we have not seen what Tom was able to do with both sides.”
Still, Foley was first speaker since the Civil War to lose reelection. His loss was one of the touchstones of the 1994 Republican takeover of the House.
Former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., recalled how Foley had initially suggested they meet weekly “to talk about the affairs of the House,” something that just didn’t happen in the House.
“We were, I guess, pupils of the old school,” Michel said. “We both took great pride in knowing we made things happen, that we found good ways to solve difficult problems, and that we made the House a working institution.”
Then Michel turned to the portrait next to the stage in Statuary Hall.
“I only hope that the legislators who now walk through here each day, so consumed by the here and now, will feel his spirit, learn from it, and be humbled by it,” Michel said.
As the ceremony concluded, the Foley family, Obama, Biden, and others quickly exited through a side door. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., briskly walked out toward the House, trailed by security detail. And a woman in a green jacket weaved through the crowd of lawmakers chatting with each other, to eagerly snap photos of that portrait.