Tom Foley remembered, as his colleagues beg for civility

October 29, 2013

Former House speaker Thomas S. Foley was remembered Tuesday in a memorial service that served as a tribute to his public service and a public plea for the nation's top political leaders to embrace his style of grace, civility and bipartisan cooperation.

Gathered in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, former colleagues praised Foley's work to help pass omnibus farm bills, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americorps program and a controversial crime bill that included a ban on military-style assault weapons -- a measure that contributed to Foley's defeat in 1994.

With President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other top House and Senate leaders watching, several speakers essentially conducted a public intervention, criticizing what they said was the current poisonous partisan climate and asking for a change in tone.

In of the most stirring moments, former House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said that he and Foley knew "that there would always be a distinction and separation between campaigning for office and serving in office. We were, I guess, pupils of the old school."

"He knew that if we wanted to be effective in the House, you just can't go around shouting your principles, you have to subject those principles to the test of open debate against those that don't share those principles," Michel said. "But true debate is not principled unless the 'Golden Rule' is applied, which simply means that you treat your fellow members the same way you want to be treated. Tom believed in that rule and he practiced it."

Returning to the present, Michel added: "I only hope that the legislators who now walk through here each day so consumed by the here-and-now will feel his spirit, learn from it and be humbled by it."

Other former colleagues provided sharper rebukes.

With Boehner and former speakers Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) watching just a few steps from the podium, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) described Foley as "the last speaker of the whole House."

"He believed that the Speaker was the speaker for the whole House and he lived that to his very core," McDermott added.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that Foley "believed that he should build and not tear down, reconcile and not divide. He stood for the principles of diplomacy and mutual respect even toward his opposition. He did not subscribe to the political of personal destruction."

"Maybe, just maybe, his passing at this moment in our history is just an eloquent reminder of one simple truth: No leader than the cause he serves and when our lives are over, we will be remembered not for fame or fortune, but for how we help or how we harm the dignity of all humankind," Lewis said.

The comments were not lost on Obama, who towards the end of the program said Foley "embodies the virtues of devotion and respect" for the institution and his colleagues. Both Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shared warm anecdotes about the time Foley blew a tire and ran out of gas on his way to file for his first race in the 1960s and how his determination to meet the filing deadline spoke to his incredible stamina.

Obama said it was not Foley's luck that made him speaker, but his hard work, deep integrity and powerful intellect -- as well as his ability to find common ground with colleagues across the aisle.

"At a time when our political system can seem more polarized and more divided than ever before, it can be tempting to see the possibility of bipartisan progress as part of the past...I believe we have to find our way back," Obama said. "Now more than ever, America needs public servants who are willing to place problem solving ahead of politics."

Obama said he visited the Capitol when Foley was speaker, when he was still a young man doing community work. Obama said he looked up and saw the Capitol and felt the same wonder that Foley maintained throughout his service.

"When were standing outside these magnificent buildings we have that sense of wonder and that sense of hope," Obama said. He added, "Tom Foley never lost it."

Foley, 84, died Oct. 18 after a long illness. He was elected to the House in 1964 and served as speaker from 1989 to 1995, stepping down after he and dozens of House Democrats lost reelection in the 1994 "Republican Revolution" that elevated Gingrich to speaker, with Boehner as a key lieutenant.

Hundreds of family members, former colleagues and dignitaries attended the memorial service, including Vice President Biden, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Walter Mondale, who, like Foley, served as a  U.S. ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration. Seated towards the front of the room was Gingrich, with former House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) seated behind him. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew also sat in the front with top Senate leaders and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and former Washington Mayor Anthony Williams. Envoys from Japan and Ireland also attended the service.

 

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Aaron Blake | October 29, 2013