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Hunt: Remembering Tom Foley, and civility in Washington

Former House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington sits

Former House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington sits next to U.S. President George H. Bush during a meeting with the congressional leadership at the White House. Photo Credit: AP, 1989

Tom Foley was a throwback: A superb politician, with policy expertise, who believed in the politics of civility and comity; a Democratic speaker of the House and a close friend of Republican Dick Cheney of Wyoming.

Foley, who died at the age of 84 Friday, became speaker in 1989 when Democrat Jim Wright was forced to resign. He served through 1994 when he was swept out of office in a Republican landslide. As a representative, Foley represented one of the most conservative districts in his home state of Washington for 30 years and commanded the respect of his fellow House Democrats, enabling him to rise in the leadership ranks.

His friendship with Cheney, an ideological opposite, derived from their mutual Western roots, calm civil manners and shared interest in national security; Foley's mentor was Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a long-time national security hawk.

Foley and Cheney took trips together and socialized during their time in the Capitol. In 1989, Cheney, who was on the leadership ladder of House Republicans, left to become Defense Secretary under President George H.W. Bush. Foley later lamented how much he regretted Cheney leaving, although he admired Cheney's service at the Pentagon. The Republican leadership slot vacated by Cheney was filled by Newt Gingrich, whose antagonistic partisanship and personal attacks were antithetical to Foley.

Foley could also be a policy wonk and was responsible for the one time I could have been accused of plagiarism. As a young reporter for the Wall Street Journal in mid-1970s, I was assigned, at the last minute, to cover a House Agriculture Committee meeting for the mark-up of a farm bill. I knew nothing about the subject and I understood very little of what I had observed.

After the session, I pulled Foley aside and asked him to please explain -- slowly -- what had just transpired. And he did, with great clarity.

In those days, the Wall Street Journal rarely gave bylines to a reporter unless the story appeared on the front page or was an impressively analytical piece. To my astonishment, the following day, there was my byline on the farm bill story. For years, Foley teased me about how he made my career.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.


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