Obama eulogizes Foley as Speaker who put 'problem-solving before politics'

President Obama said at a memorial ceremony Tuesday honoring Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) the country needs the same type of bipartisan progress Foley championed.  

“At a time when our political system can seem more polarized, more divided than ever before, it can be tempting to see the possibility of bipartisan progress as a thing of the past. It can be tempting to think if we can still have room for leaders like Tom,” Obama said. He had never known Foley personally. 

“I believe we have to find our way back there now more than ever. America needs public servants who are willing to place problem-solving before politics.”

Obama, lawmakers, former presidents and vice presidents filled the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Tuesday afternoon to remember former House Speaker Foley. He died Oct. 18. at the age of 84 after suffering from a stroke. 

“He did everything a public servant should do, and frankly, did many of them better than the rest,” Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) said, opening the service. “It was his sense of fairness, his port-in-a-storm bearing that will always stand out to me.”

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Obama ordered for all U.S. flags to fly at half-staff Tuesday in Foley’s honor. 

Former President Bill Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were among those who participated in the service. 

Heather Foley, Tom’s widow, sat in-between Obama and Boehner at the ceremony.

“Tom Foley was the quintessential champion of the common good,” said Pelosi. 

Foley, who also went by “Big Tom,” served Washington’s fifth congressional district in the House of Representatives for 30 years, from 1965 to 1995. 

In 1989, he was elected Speaker and held that title until 1994, when he became the first sitting Speaker to lose reelection. His criticism of extreme partisanship may have hurt his chances. 

That election year was deemed the “Republican Revolution,” for it thrust the GOP into power for the first time in four decades. Newt Gingrich succeeded Foley as speaker. He was also present at the service. 

Republican Rep. George Nethercutt defeated Foley in that midterm election. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, another Republican, now holds that seat. 

“He was the first speaker west of the Rocky Mountains. He had a wonderful smile, and a great voice. He was always gracious to young members like me,” Reid said of his time serving with Foley in the House. 

Following his Capitol Hill departure, then-President Clinton appointed Foley to be U.S. ambassador to Japan, which he served as until 2001. 

“He could be brutally honest in the kindest way,” Clinton said Tuesday. “He was one tough guy.”

The 15-year congressman rose through the leadership ranks: serving as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, majority whip, and majority leader before becoming speaker. 

Foley had a liberal voting record: he opposed the Vietnam War, opposed capital punishment, supported abortion rights, and backed the Equal Rights Amendment. Obama said, however, Foley's ability to reach across the aisle is what he did best. 

“It was his personal decency that helped bring civility and order to a Congress that demanded both, and still does."