Of the remembrances of Tom Foley, Robert Michel's in the Washington Post stood out. Michel was the Republican Minority Leader in the House while Foley was Speaker of the House. It might surprise you, but they worked together beautifully.
One line from Michel's piece has stayed with me: "We," Michel wrote of his old rival and friend, "were pupils of the old school."
There are Shakespearean moments in American political history, and Foley's last stand is among them. On the day he was defeated in 1994, you could say the old school Michel mentioned — that place where people from different backgrounds actually liked each other, worked together and solved problems — was burned to the ground.
To take down the sitting Speaker, the NRA hired Charlton Heston to film an attack ad. Reagan's campaign manager Ed Rollins worked his dark magic, and Rush Limbaugh was pumping up the anger with his Clinton-hating. Together, they created the blueprint for the modern political hit job.
Eastern Washington played its role, too. When the New York Times dropped in, a farmer told them, yes, removing the sitting Speaker of the House would be like shooting your own foot off. Then in the next breath, he said he didn't know why, but he was going to go ahead and shoot it off anyway. Meanwhile, Foley defended himself simply, reminding everyone of his 30-year record of helping the nation and his district.
The contest between those two forces reminds me of the scene in The Lord of the Flies when Piggy holds up the conch shell and says, "Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?"
Our answer, given that day in Spokane in 1994, still rules our politics: to hunt and kill.
Michel did not seek reelection in 1994, and after he and Foley left Congress, Newt Gingrich became Speaker, lobbyists started writing legislation, campaign season became never-ending and petty political disputes trumped all. Now, nearly 20 years later, America's political system has ground to a halt, leaving major problems unsolved and casting into doubt our place as the leading nation on the planet. Choosing our Newt Gingrichs over our Tom Foleys has been a disaster.
Foley was at peace with his 1994 loss. All through his life, he personified traditional Spokane values of humility and service. History, however, demands that he be remembered across America as a martyr to the cause of old school American politics. If there is a movement to rebuild on those ruins, reformers should start by studying the lives of leaders like Tom Foley. ♦