WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday honored former House Speaker Tom Foley as a model of civility in government, someone who put problem-solving ahead of politics and never lost his sense of wonder about serving in Congress.
Obama said the first time he visited Capitol Hill and saw the gleaming white dome, Tom Foley was House speaker.
“I was a very young man … and I remember seeing that Capitol and having that same sense of wonder,” Obama told the crowd of Washington luminaries gathered in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. “And I think now about Tom Foley being here, doing that work.”
Speakers from across the partisan spectrum — and across the generations — remembered Foley, who died Oct. 18 at the age of 84. They included Obama, former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Most, like former House Republican leader Bob Michel, remembered Foley not so much for his political positions but for the way he conducted himself. Michel and Foley served as leaders in opposite parties, Michel said, but they were close friends for decades. He fondly recalled spending time with Foley just weeks before he died.
“We knew we were icons of a bygone era,” Michel said.
As Michel finished his tribute, the crowd rose for a standing ovation and House Speaker John Boehner dabbed tears away with a handkerchief.
Foley was a 30-year veteran of the House from Washington state, serving from 1989 to 1995 as speaker, second in the line of succession to the presidency, and the first speaker from west of Texas.
Foley was defeated in the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and went on to serve as ambassador to Japan under President Bill Clinton.
Clinton said he was anguished by Foley losing his congressional seat and speakership, knowing that legislation he championed and Foley helped guide through the House had cost Foley his seat. But Clinton said Foley was never afraid to take a position he believed in that might be politically difficult.
“Tom Foley, as nice as he was, was a tough guy,” Clinton said.