King of the Hill

Speaker Tom Foley is a cautious man who's not afraid to face down a political stampede. PROFILE

SPEAKER Thomas S. Foley is sitting in a square, white-on-white striped armchair, sitting as solidly as President Lincoln sits in his Memorial stone armchair overlooking the reflecting pool and the Capitol. Like Lincoln, his eyes are focused straight ahead, on the future, his hands resting on the arms of the chair. This is his interview position, eyes front; the interviewer is placed outside the blue radar of those eyes. Later, he would sit the same way, inscrutable and solemn under a huge American flag in the House as President Bush gave his State of the Union address. Mr. Foley did his first television star turn as Speaker later that night as he soloed in the Democratic rebuttal before 27 million Americans.

But earlier, in the first of a two-part exclusive Monitor interview in his office, the man who talks intimately to millions is surprisingly remote with one reporter. By the second interview he was much more relaxed and even more articulate, though still wary about the words.

The Speaker's office might be the tastefully furnished living room of an art buff: It is painted Foley blue, the intense blue between cobalt and royal of all his offices, with a fireplace, vivid paintings, and sculpture. Foley has also stamped his taste on the Speakership; a member says ``There's an end to being garish; no more longhorns and gold damask in the Speaker's dining room.''

A voice that rumbles like a subway

Tom Foley talks of the politics of comity, this tall (6 feet, 4 inches), imposing man who is the most powerful Democrat in Congress and third in line for the presidency. His public voice rumbles like a subway train coming down the tracks, but in private his voice is often soft, blurred. Foley became Speaker June 29, 1989, the day former Speaker Jim Wright resigned following a devastating ethics committee investigation that charged him with 69 counts of breaking House rules. Despite Mr. Wright's accomplishments as Speaker, some members - particularly Republicans - say he left a trail of bitterness, rancor, and partisan hostility that poisoned the atmosphere for both parties. The consensus on both sides of the aisle is that Foley's speakership is like a quiet snowfall after the firestorm of Wright's exit.

Speaker Foley is talking now in a slow, judicious voice, choosing his words as carefully as a mountain climber chooses the next foothold on Mt. Rainier. He is talking about his concept of the Speakership:

``I think if you want a sort of daily partisan battle, and are not interested in getting anything more than the political embarrassment of the opposition ... that's not me. And if you have to have that as a requirement for the Speaker, then I think that I'm in the wrong job. Many times the sort of hard rhetoric that pleases party activists, that excites and persuades them, doesn't persuade anybody else. [Republican National Chairman] Lee Atwater is considered a hard-charging sort of political pit bull, [but] I don't consider him enormously effective in persuading people at the center of our political system. ... You take any other hard-edged, corrosive partisan politician,'' he says, who blasts the opposition and wants only to defeat it. Foley says such partisans don't recruit or persuade - the secret of the dual role of bipartisan Speaker for 435 House members and also the Democratic leader.

Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia savaged Wright but is almost dulcet in his assessment of Foley:

``He has to get an A-plus for having helped return the House to a sense of decency, and returning Congressmen to being colleagues again. ... He's very intelligent, very decent, a good colleague, a man who loves the process of self-government more than he loves simply [partisan] scoring.'' However, Mr. Gingrich charges that Foley ``has not been aware - as he should be - of procedural fairness to the minority,'' sometimes using control of the Rules Committee and procedures to block ``fair'' votes.

The Tom Foley who refuses to be a political pit bull has sometimes been criticized for not wanting to fight. Curiously, Gingrich is one of Foley's defenders on this. He says critics of Foley misunderstand; it would be foolish to deal with George Bush as Wright would have, taking on a popular president in the non-partisan Eisenhower mold.

Writer John Barry says in his book ``The Ambition and the Power'' that Foley, appointed Whip by Wright, is loyal. In interviews, Foley remains defensive and supportive of Wright. Barry also writes: ``Foley's strategy was to avoid failure, not to seek bold success. He feared failure. Wright did not. Wright made things happen. Foley allowed things to come together. He had a brooding Celtic tendency to see the dark side, the worst case....''

Thomas Stephen Foley is a bit like television. People take away their own perceptions of him. Most of his longtime friends and political colleagues see him as cautious, intelligent, fair, honest, caring, gentlemanly, a man of legendary patience who listens well. Journalist-turned-lobbyist Joe Miller, who has known Foley for 25 years, says ``He's a strange mixture; detached yet passionate in a strange way. He looks at every side of the question. ... He doesn't have the visceral partisan juices flowing ... but he can be an [extremely] effective partisan.'' Mr. Miller says ``Of course he's ambitious. It's detached ambition.'' He quotes Eric Sevareid's view that ``there are politicians who want to do something and politicians who want to be somebody. I kind of feel Foley is a politician who wants to do something.''

`You get to love broccoli'

In a private conversation he can be detached, difficult to read as a Sanskrit scroll. But in the mostly men's club atmosphere of a breakfast meeting with the heavy hitters of the Washington press he is convivial, a philospher-politician, eminently quotable, and deftly funny. When the reporters take notes on his new, trim appearance, Foley mentions that he's lost one third of his goal of 70 pounds on a diet and deadpans, ``You get used to it. You get to love broccoli.'' As the reporters dive into omelets and croissants, Foley eyes his plate of melon slices and talks about foreign aid: ``We had something to celebrate in Europe. ... The Cold War is won, or largely won, and it would seem to me inconceivable that after investing something ... close to a trillion dollars, I'll bet ... in those four decades, that we would suddenly say, `Oops! We can't afford more than $100 million now to Poland, and we can't do anything for Czechoslovakia, and if they slip back into anarchy and chaos, that's too bad, we just ran out of money.'''

Foley, who will probably be a TV regular as Speaker, seems to be enjoying his telegenic new image. When the reporters kid about how his gray glen plaid suit hangs a bit on him, he colors a little under his ruddy tan. The boomerang eyebrows rise, he ducks his headful of silver and pewter hair, and a lion's smile plays around his mouth. The Neo-Speaker seems livelier, more spirited, but still inclined to go off the record on visceral questions and strike an imprecise or impolitic word from his answers.

But on such issues as abortion he is surprisingly bold, as a leading Roman Catholic politician, in taking a pro-choice position. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently warned that politicians who publicly dissent from the church's anti-abortion stand may be singled out and possibly penalized. The Speaker, like every other member of the House, is up for re-election this year. He says, very carefully, ``I don't believe that civil authority can effectively determine the questions involving the conscience of the individual, with respect to this issue. I think it's beyond the capacity of the civil authorities to do that effectively.'' He adds: ``I have never been approached by any member of the [church] hierarchy with such an admonition.'' He emphasizes that ``The individual has to bear the responsibility for the decision.''

Vehemently opposes gun control

He is also vehement about his anti-gun control position. As a supporter of the National Rifle Association, he opposes the confiscation of private weapons. ``What we're doing it giving the impression to the American people that tightening gun-control laws will reduce the level of violence in the use of guns for crime. Certainly, there is no evidence that will happen.''

Tom Foley sometimes goes duck hunting in his native state of Washington, where he grew up in Republican Spokane in a comfortable Irish-American family. His father Ralph Foley was a prosecutor, then a judge till he was 75, with a life-long reputation for fairness and honesty. The family was untouched by the Depression, and Foley remembers his father deliberately taking him to see the bread lines and shantytowns and talking to him about the devastation of unemployment.

He was taught by the Jesuits at Washington's Gonzaga University until they tried to discipline him for lateness. Then he simply transferred to the University of Washington where earned a BA, then a law degree. He went from lawyer to a prosecutor for Spokane County, then Washington state's assistant attorney general. Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D) of Washington hired him as counsel for his Interior committee, where the senator's administrative assistant, Sterling Munro, recalls him as a Jackson prot'eg'e who was ``shy, easy-going, capable, not aggressive, boisterous, or a tremendous workaholic.'' But behind that laid-back manner was a rookie Democratic pol who won his first race for the House by beating a 22-year incumbent. Deciding to run took nearly two years; he filed late on the last day.

In the House, he served on, then became chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Majority Whip, House Majority Leader, and finally Speaker. When Foley moved up from Majority Leader to Speaker, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri took Foley's place as Majority Leader. Gephardt says that Foley has the deep respect of everybody in the House because he is seen as a true leader, ``someone people listen to and follow and are willing to go along with.''

One longtime friend says Foley's biggest flaw is ``an excess of caution.'' Representative Gephardt says ``The impression that he's cautious or unwilling to engage in battle - that's dead wrong. There are two clear examples in the last six months, tough battles in which he did well: the capital gains tax, and on the flag [amendment],'' which the House was raring to pass. ``He was standing in front of a stampede saying `Slow down, take another look,' and won. He fights, and goes after things he thinks are important and does it very well.''

House Minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois says ``His word with me is good as gold. ... He trusts me; I trust him. There's nothing more important around this place than your word.''

Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois says ``Foley and Bob Michel both see the House as a noble place and want to see it left with a residue of good will. I think [Foley] is wrong on a lot of issues; he's a Democrat and I'm a Republican. I have faith in a man whose sense of decency and history is real. ... And I like him. It's a pleasure to differ with him and know afterward that we still like each other, rather than `Oh, dear, what's in store for me?' What's in store is another day with a good argument and perhaps a good agreement.''

There is some quiet speculation that Foley might make a good presidential candidate. A longtime Foley watcher says the Speaker is interested ``if he doesn't have to work to get there.'' Representative Gingrich says, ``Given the vacuum in the Democratic party, Tom Foley would be a very formidable candidate for president.''

Foley says ``I don't have the sort of ambition to be president.'' He explains: ``I've been deeply honored to become a member of Congress and Speaker of the House, which satisfied fully any ambition I have to public service. And I want to continue to make my contribution there. I don't believe that a draft is a possibility.'' But ``If I ever had the responsibilities of being president, I think I could handle them well, as so many others could.''

His top aide is his wife

The Speaker says it's very difficult to put a label on his politics. ``I guess I would be considered by `Human Events' [magazine] to be a liberal. I've been called a moderate by a lot of people.'' He shrugs off the stereotypes.

Helen Jackson, widow of the senator, says she's always thought of Foley as being in the Jackson tradition: ``He's so right for the job of Speaker, because like Scoop, even though he's a strong Democrat, he's very fair-minded and can persuade people who may be ... on the opposite side politically to support positions he thinks are just. You don't feel there's this great ego out there, seeking out the TV cameras. He's just there doing his job and loving it for the sheer challenge of governing.''

Foley's unpaid administrative assistant for nearly 20 years has also been his wife, lawyer Heather Strachan Foley. As the Speaker's assistant, she is the most powerful aide on the Hill. They met working in Scoop Jackson's office, and married in 1968 after she received her law degree from George Washington University. There is still a '60s madonna look about Mrs. Foley: long, straight brown hair falling over her shoulders, little makeup. She wears a black and white print dress, black pumps, and a ``Ceylonese sapphire'' wedding ring. The Foleys were married in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where her father was on leave from AID. Mrs. Foley clarifies a rumor that they were married on an elephant; it was just a honeymoon photo that ran in local papers.

Mrs. Foley has extraordinary eyes, a pale maize yellow, as well as an extraordinary effect on some of her husband's friends and colleagues. They hint that she can be difficult, that powerful men like then-Speaker Tip O'Neill and the late Sen. Warren Magnuson (D) of Washington were highly critical of her. One observer notes: ``Heather has them that like her, them that don't.'' Those who do, say she's a brilliant lawyer (Foley put her through law school) who runs the office very efficiently; she frees him from details and does heavy fund-raising.

Heather Foley's partnership with her husband in politics as well as in marriage may have riled some politicians used to the traditional view of congressional wives as decorative, quiet backdrops. She is extremely candid, has strong opinions, but says she doesn't like seeing her name in print. Would she like to be First Lady? ``No.'' Long pause, then ``I regard it as a prison.'' Her critics hint she is kept from active campaigning, but she says she prefers the administrative work, and doesn't choose to appear with Foley in public often. Will she say a few words about him? ``Thomas?'' she says, and her face becomes tender, her voice soft, ``This is the man I love.'' Her hands open in appeal, ``I could go on for hours about how wonderful he is.''

Speaker Foley talks of her, says he doesn't think politics has been tough on their marriage ``because Heather is very much involved in my work, for over 20 years ... I can't really imagine how I could have been successful without her.''

Scott Lukins, a Spokane lawyer who was Foley's roommate at law school, talks about Foley's neatness, his discomfort in casual clothes. Foley also collects contemporary classic furniture, and has several thousand dollars' worth of audio equipment in his office to listen to Bach and Mozart.

At the end of our second interview, I ask Tom Foley why the Irish often rise to the top in American politics. The political tradition started because Irish immigrants' opportunities for private advancement were so restricted, he said. ``But that's not true today. I had dinner in Boston recently, and the guests at the dinner were saying, `Well, the Irish haven't much position in politics in Massachusetts, that period is past.' I was sitting in the presence of a Supreme Court Justice, a mayor of Irish descent, councilmen, state senators, and so forth.'' He laughs quietly. ``Why we're especially successful is a harder question. I think to some extent it's possibly'' - faint smile - ``a social gift, or a capacity that may be a part of us.''

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