By Ray Smock
It was my good fortune during the nearly twelve years that I served as Historian of the House of Representatives to meet a lot of very interesting people and outstanding public servants from both political parties. One of those outstanding individuals, Speaker Tom Foley, died this past week and my thoughts turned back to his Speakership.
I had no idea when I was hired in 1983 that I would be witnessing the end of a political era in the House and that the end of that era would also be the end of my career in the House. In the watershed congressional elections of 1994 the Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in forty years. My tenure there coincided with the Speakerships of Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, Jim Wright of Texas, and Tom Foley of Washington. My office fell under the direct administrative control of the Speaker, even though I was not part of the political aspects of the Speaker’s duties.
Tom Foley not only lost the Speakership in 1994 when Republicans gained control of the chamber and elected Newt Gingrich as Speaker, he also lost his election as a member of Congress from the state of Washington that year. The tide was turning against incumbents. The public was fed up with scandals that had wracked the House. Newt Gingrich had gone from an obscure back bencher to a prominent critic of everything that was wrong with the House and his message resonated with enough voters to usher in the “Gingrich Revolution.” It was a time of bitter partisanship. Politics was rapidly coarsening. It was not just a matter of defeating an opponent; the goal was to destroy the opponent.
Obituaries and letters to the editor across the country this week have praised Speaker Foley for his decency, his fairness, and his intellectual qualities, all of which rings true with me. He had a professorial style. He was deliberative and thoughtful. He was an avid reader and an intellectual. He weighed political decisions from all sides. Speaker Tip O’Neill jokingly said of Foley when Foley was Majority Leader, that he could see three sides to every issue. I am sure this quality frustrated his colleagues from time to time, but it was part of Foley’s deliberative process and in the legislative branch of government, where deliberation is an essential ingredient of good governance, Foley’s intellectual approach was positive and refreshing.
On December 8, 1994, I went over to the Speaker’s office to say goodbye to Tom Foley. I was just nine days away from getting my own notice that I too would be losing my job as Newt Gingrich began taking control of the House. In the journal I kept of my days as House Historian, I recorded the event as follows:
[From Ray Smock’s House Journal, Dec. 10, 1994.]
Last Thursday I went over to the Speaker’s office to say goodbye and to have my picture taken with Tom Foley. He had graciously agreed to spend the morning posing for pictures with anyone who wanted one.
It was quite an operation. I got there about 11 AM and the Speaker had been standing and grinning for almost two hours. The line had been steady all morning. As I got near the door of his office I was handed a large envelop and was told to write my name on it in big letters along with my address. The House photographer Keith Jewell was there taking the pictures. He was working several cameras. He would pivot to his right and take a picture of the person holding their envelop with the name on it. A staff member then whisked away the envelop and the person stepped forward next to the Speaker. Then as that person shook hands with the Speaker the photographer would pivot to his left and take a picture before pivoting back to shoot the next person in line with their envelop. This gave him an identification of name and face so they knew who to send the picture to.
It was like a living wake. The corpse, Tom Foley, was not dead physically, just politically. We all lined up to pay our last respects and get a picture for posterity. I knew I wouldn’t have much time to say anything to the Speaker when my turn came. But I wanted to say something to him besides “Gee, I’m sorry you lost the election.” But when my turn came the Speaker was one step ahead of me. “Well, Mr. Historian,” he said, “perhaps you should remind the new Speaker of a historical precedent that might repeat itself.”
I was grinning and shaking his hand by this time and Keith Jewell was about to snap the picture. I said, “And what precedent is that, Mr. Speaker?” He said, “The last time two sitting Speakers were defeated for reelection was in 1860 and 1862, that’s back to back. Maybe the same thing will happen in 1994 and 1996.”
He had taken an awkward situation and turned it into a nice little exchange on history. He wasn’t bitter when he said this but I took it as his way of saying that he hoped Newt Gingrich wouldn’t last long. I told him that was an interesting proposition but that I didn’t think I wanted to be the one to call it to Newt’s attention. He laughed and said he understood, and that was it. Keith had clicked the picture and I was headed for the door while the next person stepped forward.
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