Thomas Foley, the House speaker from 1989 to 1994 and later an ambassador to Japan, died Friday morning of stroke-related complications. He was 84.
“With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
The Democrat from Spokane, Wash., was first elected to the House in 1964 and rose through the ranks over 15 terms to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, majority whip, and majority leader. In June 1989, he became the nation’s 57th House speaker.
But, in a rare event, he was defeated for election to his House seat in 1994 in a landslide that capped that year’s “Republican Revolution,” which led to the installation of Newt Gingrich as speaker. Foley, who lost his seat to Republican George Nerthercutt, was the first speaker of the House since the Civil War to lose a bid for reelection.
In his campaign against Foley, Nethercutt capitalized on a populist theme, promising to serve no more than three terms in the House, a promise he would ultimately break. But the theme was a popular one in 1994. The message took hold in part because it came just two years after Washington voters approved a ballot measure limiting terms for state officials — including federal representatives. Foley, allied with the League of Women Voters and others, filed a challenge and won, but Nethercutt was able to play up Foley’s role in overturning that measure.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, herself a former speaker who visited Foley at a hospice this week, called him “a quintessential champion of the common good.”
“In his years leading the House of Representatives, Speaker Foley’s unrivaled ability to build consensus and find common ground earned him genuine respect on both sides of the aisle. The year I took office, he secured a much-needed budget compromise that restored public faith in our financial security and confidence in Congress,” she recalled.
House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington state, said Foley will be remembered “as one of our state’s giants.”
“Eastern Washington agriculture and wheat farmers still benefit today from his leadership as Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and House Speaker,” she said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden said of Foley in a statement, “It was an honor to work with him during the budget summits of the 1980s that did so much to secure our nation’s future, and when he served overseas as our nation’s Ambassador to Japan.”
After leaving Congress, Foley worked at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld from 1995 through 1997, a period in which he was President Clinton’s chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Clinton nominated him to be the 25th ambassador to Japan in 1997, a position in which he served until March 2001.
After leaving that post, Foley chaired the Mansfield Foundation until 2008 and was active on a number of private and public boards of directors. Those included the Japan-America Society of Washington, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Center for National Policy.
He is survived by his wife, Heather, and other family members.
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