WASHINGTON – Tom Foley, the genteel U.S. deal-maker who served as an enthusiastic ambassador to Japan following a crushing defeat as speaker of the House of Representatives, died Friday. He was 84.
Foley, a Democrat who represented a district around his native Spokane, Washington, in Congress for 30 years, died at his home in the U.S. capital, Washington, after poor health, his wife and lawmakers said.
Known for his dapper suits and poise under pressure, Foley won a reputation for forging tough legislative compromises, eventually taking the speaker’s gavel in 1989 when a scandal engulfed his predecessor, Jim Wright.
Foley in 1994, however, became the only sitting House speaker in modern times to lose his own seat as Republicans, led by an insurgent Newt Gingrich, swept to power.
Then-President Bill Clinton later attributed Foley’s defeat in part to his work in passing a ban on semi-automatic guns, making him a top foe of the National Rifle Association.
Foley, representing rural stretches of eastern Washington, had usually resisted tighter gun regulations but had a change of heart after a shooting killed five people at a local air force base.
President Barack Obama also credited Foley with finding common ground and said he used his “poise and civility” in Japan to “strengthen our relationship with one of our closest allies.”
By the time Clinton tapped Foley to be ambassador to Tokyo in 1997, the defeated speaker had visited Japan some 30 times and professed his fascination for the ancient civilization.
Foley — who at 180 cm tall often remarked that he stood out in Japan — said after his tenure that some Americans had viewed him as part of a “chrysanthemum club” that was uncritical of Japan at a time of trade disputes.
Foley repeatedly pressed Japan for greater economic reforms and managed tensions around U.S. troops in Okinawa in the aftermath of the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen in 1995.
But Foley was also a strong supporter of a greater role for Japan in global affairs such as security, encouraging the U.S. ally not to cede its place to a rising China.
“I believe, personally, that Japan is going to see an economic recovery of greater dimension in the coming years,” Foley said after leaving the post in 2001.
Japan has struggled with tepid or negative growth since the early 1990s and in 2010 was overtaken by China — which is 10 times more populous — as the world’s second-largest economy.
Current Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who faced pressure from conservatives that led to a government shutdown this month, remembered Foley as well-liked by lawmakers across the political spectrum.
“That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any speaker or representative,” Boehner said in a statement.
Foley in 1990 helped negotiate a deal with then-President George Bush to pare down the federal deficit through spending cuts and higher taxes. An infuriated Republican base turned on Bush, who had famously promised, “Read my lips — no new taxes.”
Several months later, Foley disagreed with Bush’s calls for military action against Iraq, instead seeking more time for sanctions to persuade strongman Saddam Hussein to withdraw from occupied Kuwait. But Foley found himself in the minority, with both the House and Senate authorizing force.
Bush in a statement Friday said that Foley was “well-informed and well-reasoned, but Tom never got personal or burned bridges.”
“We didn’t agree on every issue, but on key issues we managed to put the good of the country ahead of politics,” Bush said.
Foley’s widow, the former Heather Strachan, was the daughter of a U.S. diplomat and the two married in Sri Lanka.