There was something especially poignant about former House Speaker Tom Foley’s passing shortly after the bitter hostility of the government shutdown. Foley believed in negotiating. He had negotiated as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. As he rose in the House Democratic leadership, he was consistently the least partisan member. Part of his conciliatory approach was personality, part geography, part what he learned from his mentors, part legislative experience.
Foley, who died on Oct. 18 at 84, was a great storyteller and could keep his fellow legislators relaxed and laughing through an extended series of anecdotes. Many of his stories involved laughing at himself. It was a wonderful lesson in the power of humility to disarm your opponents (and in some ways very much like President Lincoln).
Although he was friendly, Speaker Foley was an excellent debater. In one heated late-night debate he caught me in an obvious inconsistency. He jumped in and hammered me so brilliantly that all I could do was stand up and give him a bow. He smiled and bowed back. The 100 or so members on the floor applauded our mutual respect and good sportsmanship.
Since Foley had won his House seat in 1964 in a wave election–one in which more than 20 House seats swing from one party to the other–it probably did not shock him to lose it in a wave election 30 years later. He always said that being elected Speaker in 1989 was the second greatest honor of his life, after having been chosen Congressman by his hometown citizens in Spokane, Wash. And he meant it.
After losing his final election, in 1994, Speaker Foley was extraordinarily generous in helping me understand the operations of the Speaker’s office. There had not been a Republican Speaker in 40 years. He could have made things difficult, but his sense of the larger institution and his basic decency led him to be very helpful.
I have nothing but fond memories of serving with Tom Foley. We worked together when we could, competed when we had to and cooperated for the national interest as often as possible. He was interesting and intelligent and had great integrity. America lost a genuine patriot this week.
Gingrich was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999
This text originally appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of TIME magazine.
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