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Former Speaker of the House Thomas Foley died today at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 84 years old. Foley had been in hospice care following a stroke and a bout with pneumonia earlier this year. He was a Democrat who served in Congress for 30 years, beginning with the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964 and ending with the Newt Gingrich revolution of 1994, when Foley lost his own seat. That year, as he was leaving the House, he reflected on how much the institution had change in the 30 years he'd served there.
THOMAS FOLEY: This is a totally different, more open, more small D, democratic, more participatory institution than it was in the days of Sam Rayburn. The committee chairmen are powerful individuals but they're not as powerful as when I first came here, where one committee chairman addressed the new membership that he wanted to say a word to us, and that word was silence and attention.
SIEGEL: Tom Foley spent five years as speaker. And joining us to talk about him is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, who covered the Foley years for Congressional Quarterly. Hi, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: It's been nearly 20 years now since Tom Foley was running the House. What do you think he'll be remembered for?
ELVING: He'd want to be remembered as bringing at least a temporary peace to the House after the stormy resignation of Speaker Jim Wright in 1989. Now, Wright resigned over personal business, ethics issues and a big political fracas over a fat congressional pay raise. Foley was a much different kind of speaker.
He was more conciliatory, more respectful of the president and of the Republicans in Congress. And he played a big role in the budget summit of 1990 with President Bush, the first President Bush. That resulted in revenue increases and spending cuts that greatly reduced the federal deficit for the rest of that decade.
SIEGEL: But things went wrong for Foley and for the Democrats not longer thereafter.
ELVING: That's right. In '91 and '92, starting with the House bank controversy, members were writing checks against paychecks they had not yet received. Some were abusing that privilege quite extensively. And many of them lost their seats in the election of 1992.
SIEGEL: In 1994, the next congressional election, of course, the Democrats lost their majority. The Republicans came in from the wilderness for the first time in decades. And one of the incumbent Democrats who lost his seat was Tom Foley.
ELVING: That's right. He became the first sitting speaker since 1862 to lose re-election in his own district. He had been representing this district based in Spokane, Washington, rural Republican territory in the eastern part of Washington state, for a long time. And his string ran out.
SIEGEL: What kind of a man was Tom Foley personally?
ELVING: He was a large man. He was well over six feet tall and quite imposing, even after he had dropped 80 pounds on a diet and exercise regimen after he became speaker. He was a great audiophile and a lover of opera and classical music. Formal to a fault, he favored going out on campaign tours in his home district wearing his formal suit and his wingtip shoes, even on farms.
And he was also remarkably soft-spoken and gentle man and a talented listener. He once told me in an interview that he was a little bit cursed, as he put it, with the ability to understand and appreciate the other guy's point of view in an argument. Some of his Democratic colleagues didn't always appreciate that tendency.
SIEGEL: Do we know what he made - or do you think you know what he would have made of the politics in Washington and the House, in particular, in the past couple of years?
ELVING: He would have had, I believe, great empathy for what Speaker John Boehner has been going through this fall, trying to bring just one party together in one chamber and then compromise with the other power centers of government. But I think he'd also say with some sadness that what we've seen this fall is a natural and tragic extension of the kind of blood-sport partisanship he had hoped to see end in his own time as speaker. And as it turned out, his own time as speaker was far too brief for that.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Ron.
ELVING: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving on the death today of former Speaker of the House Tom Foley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.