Why Tom Foley matters

Old age burns at the close of day, Dylan Thomas wrote, but Tom Foley isn’t raging against the dying of the light; he has the serenity of a life of service.

A golden boy congressman from Spokane, Speaker of the House, and U.S. ambassador to Japan, now an implausible 84.

Foley was schooled by the Jesuits at Gonzaga, an Irish Catholic whose family worshiped at the cathedral of Franklin Roosevelt. His grandfather moved West from Minnesota, a boiler-shop foreman with the Great Northern Railroad. The Foleys lived comfortably during the Great Depression, with Tom’s father, Ralph, the elected Spokane County prosecuting attorney and later a long-serving superior court judge.

The Depression still made despair visible. Foley watched men queued up at Sacred Heart Hospital, served apples and snacks by the nuns. Decades later, Foley fought for food stamps and other anti-poverty pillars of LBJ’s Great Society. He became the consummate liberal representing a rock-ribbed conservative district. How?

Foley and his staff worked their arses off. They had a Talmudic command of the agriculture bill, every section committed to memory. A former editor at the Spokane Spokesman-Review said that was the simple secret: work. Foley earned the respect of farmers from Kettle Falls to Walla Walla. Men and women pulled from Grant Wood’s American Gothic, pitchfork in hand.

Serendipity launched Foley’s political career, when on the last day of candidate filing in 1964, a local Democrat called his bluff. Foley, then a counsel to the Senate Interior Committee, bit, even though his bank account was empty. “Everyone seems to have a rich uncle,” Foley said. “Well, I had a rich cousin.” His cousin, Hank, fronted the money for the filing fee, and Foley went all the way with LBJ.

Foley now is the last surviving member of Washington’s “class of ‘64” that included leaders such as Rep. Lloyd Meeds. It was a boys club then, although the formidable Julia Butler Hansen powered the 3rd District. Foley ultimately enlisted Heather Strachen, his trusted spouse and confidant, to run his office, a subtle strike against the boy’s club.

Time collapses. Today’s political class sees the world through the glass, cynically. Young Democrats and young Republicans attend campaign boot camps to learn the workings of direct mail, of hit pieces and sound bites. All tactics, no soul.

Tom Foley has soul, all the while joking about his “type B personality.”

History’s great-man theory is hooey, yet here stands Foley, a no-BS statesman, a light that makes 21st century politicians look small. It’s OK to call him a great man.

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