Book cover of Tom Foley: The Man in the Middle

R. Kenton Bird ’99 PhD Amer. Stu. and John C. Pierce

University Press of Kansas: 2023


Spokane native Thomas S. “Tom” Foley made history in 1989 as the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives to hail from west of Texas. He was a Democrat in a traditionally conservative district who served 30 years in Congress before, R. Kenton Bird and John C. Pierce argue, increasingly partisan politics ended his career.

Bird, a journalist, and Pierce, a political scientist and former Washington State University research professor, draw heavily on the Thomas S. Foley Congressional Papers at the WSU Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections to present this impressive biography, part of the Congressional Leaders series from University Press of Kansas.

WSU has a special connection to the former Speaker of the House. Not only does its libraries house 480 boxes of Foley’s correspondence, reports, and other materials concerning his legislative efforts, WSU is also home to the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service. The authors are WSU-connected too. Pierce chaired the Department of Political Science for 8 years and was dean of the College of Liberal Arts for 11 years. From 1970 to 1971, he was an American Political Science Congressional Fellow, serving part of that time in Foley’s office. Bird was a fellow in the same program from 1988 to 1989. Ten years later, he wrote his WSU dissertation on Foley’s congressional career. He’s a professor at the University of Idaho’s School of Journalism and Mass Media, which he directed for 12 years.

Together, Bird and Pierce expertly examine the contributions of the skilled, longtime Washington state politician, particularly known for his civility and collaborative leadership style. “He was inclusive, bipartisan, and committed to cooperation, comity, evenhandedness, and institutional effectiveness of the legislative process,” they write. And he remained that way even as the seasoned statesman faced growing “partisan polarization and political attacks.”

Bird and Pierce portray Foley as a transformative leader with a remarkable career, exploring his steady political climb, strength and influence, challenges, and, ultimately, life after Congress. Their thoroughly researched and well-organized account provides plenty of political and historical context and analysis, focusing on Foley’s years as an elected official, from 1965 to 1995. Aside from Foley’s own cowritten autobiography in 1999, this is the first comprehensive work documenting Foley as a central transitional leader.


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Ask the Authors: John Pierce and Kenton Bird, authors of Tom Foley: The Man in the Middle