The Gentle Giant

If more of our current politicians would look to the life and political career of Tom Foley, we'd all be better off

Towards the end of his fine novel Citizen Vince, Spokane journalist-turned-best-selling novelist Jess Walter describes Vince's encounter with an Irish politician in a bar on Sprague Avenue inside a well-known downtown Spokane hotel.

It's the day before the 1980 election, and Vince, a felon placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program, has been debating for a week whether to vote, given his new identity and a clean slate. He strides into the lounge, sits at the bar and asks the bartender if he can switch the TV above the booze to the news for just 10 minutes, even though Monday Night Football is about to begin.

The bartender politely points out that the five other patrons at the bar want the football game, but tells Vince if he can get one other patron to second his request, he'll switch for 10 minutes. Vince surveys the lounge, recognizing that none of those at the bar will give him a second. However, there are two gray suits sitting at a table having highballs and eating a steak.

Anyone familiar with Spokane immediately recognizes the Ridpath Hotel. The Irish politician is also recognizable — it's Tom Foley, the only person subsequently to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from the vast area west of Texas.

Vince recognizes that the larger of the two suits, a bearish but friendly-looking guy, is the local congressman — he knows his name begins with "F". Vince asks if the congressman will second his motion. As only a writer with a novelist's eye can, Walter captures the puckish humor of the late Speaker:

He stands, raises a draft beer, and covers his heart. "Esteemed colleagues, the representative from Table Six in the great state of Washington — home of glorious wheat fields and aluminum plants, cool, clear rivers and snow-capped mountains, and the finest bar patrons in this great country, proudly casts his vote in favor of 10 minutes of misery and heartache courtesy of the national news."

The guys at the bar raise their glasses in confused reverie as the bartender reaches up to turn the channel.

Anyone who ever knew Speaker Foley can easily envision this fictional scene. It captures the quintessential Tom Foley — his humor, wit, intelligence, compassion, perspicacity, all in one brief vignette. The Ridpath, once the hotel of choice for labor as the only "union" hotel in Spokane, has been shuttered for years. And Tom Foley passed away at the age of 84 this past week.

Foley deservedly will live on in the hearts and minds of the many people who he and his capable staff, led by his wife Heather Strachan, helped during his distinguished 30-year career of public service. When all of us directly touched by this most decent of officeholders have ourselves passed on, Tom Foley will live on in the pages of Walter's novel and in the records that chronicle this gentle giant's accomplishments ensconced at Washington State University in the Tom Foley Institute of Public Policy.

As a rookie Washington, D.C., correspondent covering the capital for several Northwest and Alaskan newspapers in 1971 and 1972, Foley's office was a stop on my beat because the Lewiston Tribune had subscribers in the Fifth District.

Even though it was early in Foley's remarkable three-decade tenure, he already possessed qualities that stood him apart from the rest of his colleagues. He personified civility. He was always courteous and solicitous. He possessed a great ability to tell illustrative stories and a wonderful sense of humor.

There wasn't an arrogant or pretentious bone in his body, and he displayed great patience both with his less intellectually gifted colleagues and young reporters asking uninformed questions. He had a marvelous ability to explain, clearly and concisely, arcane elements of a farm bill or ancient rules of the House.

As Speaker he was noted for his absolute fairness, his judicious demeanor. Some of the best tributes on his passing have come from Republicans like former Senator Slade Gorton, who pointed out Foley had many opponents over the years, but no real enemies. The reason for this was explicated nowhere better than Minority Leader Robert Michel's Washington Post tribute. The former Illinois congressman cited the sine qua non of personal politics — Foley was a man of his word¸ his word was his bond, and they trusted each other.

Others will chronicle all that Foley accomplished for his district, the state and the nation. It is indeed a fine record of public service by a true public servant.

Here's hoping, though, that future generations recognize his sense of history and his belief in the critical role the House of Representatives serves in our democratic system of government. He loved the House, and as Jeff Biggs noted so well in his biography of the Speaker, he brought honor to the House. One doubts we will ever see his likes again.♦

Chris Carlson worked for Cecil Andrus when he was governor of Idaho and when he was Secretary of the Interior. He later co-founded the Gallatin Group. Today he lives and writes from his home on Cave Lake in North Idaho.

Monday Funday: Storytime at the North Bank @ Riverfront Park

Mon., July 26, 11-11:45 a.m. and Mon., Aug. 9, 11-11:45 a.m.
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