I served in Congress with House Speaker Tom Foley for 10 years, both of us moderate Democrats representing between us all of eastern Washington state. Buffeted as we were between our conservative constituencies and the more liberal -- and frequently extreme -- activists in our own party from the large metropolitan areas and the East coast, we shared a lot of gut-wrenching decisions, and I came to know Tom very well.

The excellent feature on Rep. Foley {front page, June 7} prompts me to comment, especially about the suggestion that Rep. Foley is not a strong enough leader to satisfy some critics. Those who wish for a "strong" speaker such as Sam Rayburn may forget that the House has reformed itself to prevent such a concentration of power in one or a few men, and now functions substantially as an assembly of many almost autonomous committees.

Those who see Rep. Foley only from a distance, or in news bits in the press or on TV, may fail at first to recognize the extraordinary qualities he brings to the speaker's office in such an atmosphere.

Those closer to him know that he was elected to lead the House principally because of his absolute integrity, great intellect, his dignity and respect for the House, his openness and willingness to consider all sides of an issue, the sense of the historic importance of his actions. These are traits that Congress respects, and members who may often disagree with Rep. Foley voted for him because they have confidence he will be fair.

One of the major problems any person who would lead the House Democrats must face is the debilitating activism of the party's left-wing extremists -- the faction that has managed to nominate presidential candidates who were defeated because they did not earn the support of the party or the public. Rep. Foley knows that the country is really politically moderate, but he must continually contend with those ideologues within his own party who are determined to impose their own agendas on Congress and the country, blind to the damage they are doing.

Before criticizing Rep. Foley as not being a more innovative and aggressive leader, it might be well to encourage some of the more extreme members of his party to develop a broader and more moderate perspective about serving society. Given that, Rep. Foley would have an opportunity to lead one strong party, rather than having to contend with divergent factions within it.

Rep. Foley has all the qualities of a leader, and he can be a great asset to the nation. However, this will require more than one year and will depend partially on many of his colleagues realizing that a more multi-dimensional, reasoned, moderate approach to public service is called for today.

MIKE McCORMACK Washington