I first arrived in Washington, D.C. near the end of 1968 as a newly hired member of Senator Frank Church’s staff. I soon became friends with several members of Congressman Tom Foley’s staff and was invited to begin joining them for after hours gatherings in Foley’s office.
Sometimes events of the day on the Hill were discussed. Other times Foley would use his encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. history and government to explain how the founding fathers intended government to work.
Foley was first elected to the House in 1964. Before that he had served for several years on Senator Henry M. Jackson’s staff. Because of that staff experience, I think he felt a special kinship to congressional staffers. Others have suggested that because he and his wife Heather had no children, these sessions were in fact gatherings of the Foley family. Regardless of the reason, Foley took me under his wing and until I left Washington in 1971, we maintained a close relationship.
One time I was co-hosting a group of young political leaders from the Soviet Union as part of an exchange program. They arrived in Washington in the midst of a major anti-war protest with accordion wire and armed military personnel in wide use. Kennedy Stadium had been converted into an open air jail. I asked Foley if he would host a luncheon in the Capitol for the group and try to explain to them that the U.S. wasn’t trying to emulate to Soviet Union in controlling its citizenry. He did a terrific job of working his way through a difficult situation. Years later it came as no surprise to me that he became U.S. ambassador to Japan.
After Cecil Andrus was elected Governor in 1970, I asked Foley if he would join Frank Church in co-hosting a reception honoring Andrus at the Capitol. He did and the result was a reception filled with many of the best known Senators and Congressmen of the era.
In 1971 I decided to leave Washington and return to Idaho. On my last day in the office, I received a midafternoon phone call. Picking up the phone, a voice said, “Marty, this is Tom. You aren’t really planning on leaving Washington without getting together for a couple of beers are you.” So I spent the rest of my last day as a Senate staff member drinking beer with Tom Foley.
A former Foley staffer, Todd Woodard, was quoted in the Spokesman Review as saying that “He taught us that public service really was a higher calling and an honorable profession.” I would certainly second that.
Foley was a remarkable individual in many ways. My relationship with him was not unlike the relationships he had with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. He rose through the leadership ranks without ever having another member compete against him.
When he was elected Speaker, he understood that the Speaker of the House was the speaker of all of the house, not just of the Democrats. That is certainly an attitude that was never seemed to have been shared by his successors, Gingrich, Hastert, Pelosi or Boehner.
Foley was dignified, always being careful to wear a suit and tie in public. He was also caring, highly intelligent, and had a great sense of humor. In fact some of the best jokes I ever heard from Foley were jokes that he told on himself. And his major focus, in spite of his various national leadership roles, was always to make sure that his home constituency in eastern Washington was served in the best way possible.
Two recent books talk about the era when Tom Foley was a member of the House: “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis” by Ira Shapiro; and “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked” by Chris Matthews. These books should be required reading for all current members of the House and Senate. Congress has worked in the past and did have as its focus doing whatever it deemed best for the American public, rather than whatever it takes to get re-elected.
Given the current state of Congress, I am grateful that I had an opportunity to learn much of what I know about the way that government should work from a teacher like Tom Foley. I’ve never been one to think that we should return to the “good old days.” But perhaps there are some other Tom Foleys out there somewhere on the horizon who will be able to help get the Congress and the country back on track.
Marty Peterson grew up in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.Share on Facebook