Thomas S. Foley was a political gentleman. The Speaker of the House lived and worked from principles that defined his political career: civility, honesty, and integrity. Even though he lost his seat in Congress, Foley’s legacy continues to encourage many others to follow his path, through his namesake institute at Washington State University.
No one on the reelection team was emotionally prepared for Foley’s defeat in 1994. A sitting Speaker had not been defeated since the Civil War era. John Pierce remembers Foley as “sad, stunned about the election results, but not vindictive.” Pierce had been a congressional fellow with Foley before beginning a 24-year career at WSU, eventually as chair of political science and then dean of humanities and social sciences.
Just days after Foley’s defeat, Pierce, WSU government relations director Beverly Lingle, and WSU archivist John Guido met with Heather and Tom Foley in the Speaker’s office in Washington, D.C. The usually bustling office was almost empty of staff. “The Speaker’s office had eight phone lines. Usually it was difficult to carry on a conversation there. On that day, the phone didn’t ring once,” says Lingle.
It was in this somber atmosphere that plans solidified for Foley’s archives and for a center at WSU to give them context. “Tom wanted a living, breathing place where students could gather,” says Lingle. “He was very clear about that.”
The idea of an institute at WSU had evolved from discussions between WSU President Sam Smith, Pierce, and the Foleys. “We wanted Tom’s congressional papers and had discussed housing them for quite some time. The institute concept evolved very quickly and came together over the course of weeks,” says Smith.
Guido immediately started working with staff on gathering materials. “I remember that when we arrived, staff were throwing things away,” Lingle recalls with a laugh. “John Guido quickly put a stop to that and implemented a system to prepare Tom’s papers for travel. Staff members were extremely cooperative, and the archives had no restrictions.” Within weeks, large moving vans appeared at Johnson Tower and at Holland Library’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.
“We quickly set about researching other, similar institutions, seeking funding, and defining the scope of the institute,” says Pierce. By mid-November 1994, initial plans were in place, and the institute had a name: The Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.
Twenty years later, Foley’s “living, breathing place” resides in Bryan Hall, where it hosts guest lecturers and researchers. It also sends many students on internships to encourage public service careers.
“Political engagement by students is critical because it is so immensely empowering,” says Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute and political science professor. “I’m proud to say we’ve expanded internships significantly. Internships in Olympia and D.C. used to be almost an afterthought. Now they are a key part of our work.” Foley interns work in local, county, state, and national government, diplomacy, law enforcement, courts, political action groups, and at research organizations.
The institute has also hosted dozens of significant and diverse speakers, such as John Ashcroft, Angela Davis, Seymour Hersh, and Christopher Hitchens. It has fostered informed public policy debate by organizing formal and informal political gatherings, multidisciplinary symposia, and citizen forums, including an ambitious conference in 2011 on civility and American democracy.