John Pierce and R. Kenton Bird were fellows in the same program nearly 20 years apart.
Pierce served as an American Political Science Congressional Fellow from 1970 to 1971, working part of that time in Tom Foley’s congressional office. Bird was a fellow from 1988 to 1989. Ten years later, he wrote his WSU dissertation on Foley’s congressional career. Pierce, chair of the Department of Political Science for eight years and dean of the College of Liberal Arts for eleven years, was on the committee for his doctoral degree. They spent nearly eight years working on their 2023 biography of Foley, which was part of the Congressional Leaders series from University Press of Kansas.
“Spokane native 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, Bird and Pierce argue, increasingly partisan politics ended his career.
Pierce and newly retired University of Idaho journalism professor Bird (’99 PhD Amer. Stu.) drew heavily on the Thomas S. Foley Congressional Papers at the WSU Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections for their research. Here, they talk about their collaboration, mutual interest in Foley, and more.
What best explains Tom Foley’s ability as a Democrat to be elected 15 times in a conservative-leaning district?
JP: I think it reflects his background and his personality. He was a moderate, a person in the middle, not just in Congress but, I think, his whole life. It was kind of an expression of who he was as a person.
KB: I might add that Tom Foley learned at the hand of a master. He was a protégé of Senator Henry Jackson, a longtime senator from the state of Washington known as “Scoop”. Foley worked on his staff in Washington, D.C. Foley also had the good fortune of being a Democrat on the ticket when Lyndon Johnson as running for president. In some ways, he rode the coattails of two giants—one in national politics and one in Northwest politics. It was a stroke of good timing. Getting into office that first time was probably the hardest election he fought until 1994. He had a close call in 1980 and again in 1992, the last time he won. But for most of those 15 terms he had a fairly high percentage of the vote.
JP: As we point out in the book, he was a transactionalist and a transformationalist. He served his constituency in many ways. But he also imbued that service with bipartisanship, which had not really been the case before.
KB: The other thing that Foley had going for him during his 30 years in Congress was an outstanding staff, both in his district and in Washington, D.C. He hired good people, treated them well, and kept them for a long time. That aided in his ability to provide constituent services and deliver projects and federal dollars to his district.
After that long streak of electoral victories, what best explains his defeat in 1994?
KB: We call the chapter about 1994 “The Perfect Storm.” We took the title from Sebastian Junger’s 1997 narrative nonfiction story of the confluence of forces that created a huge superstorm on the East Coast. In Foley’s case, the elements of the storm were term limits, gun control, and the unpopularity of Bill Clinton during the midterm election.
JP: That last election there were national forces at work as well. The [Newt] Gingrich movement that sort of took over after Foley indicated directly and by implication that it was time for change. I must say he didn’t lose by very much.
KB: It was less than 4,000 out of 200,000 votes cast. If two dozen votes had shifted in every precinct in the three largest counties, it could have gone the other way. One of the things that was different in 1994 was the quality of the opponent. Foley had benefitted in past elections from a series of fringe candidates who had no prior elected office, did not have name recognition in the 5th district, and took—in some cases—extreme positions. Foley was so powerful, the Republican party was willing to give him a pass. In 1994, George Nethercutt emerged as a thoughtful opponent. For the first time in decades, voters had a credible Republican candidate as an alternative to Foley. Nethercutt benefitted as Foley did in ’64 from being in the right place at the right time.
What were Foley’s most important contributions to policy and politics?
JP: I think it was his style and his philosophy of government. They meshed in a very approachable way. His personality and his way of leading.
KB: I think, in terms of policy, he was very proud of his opposition to the flag-burning amendment in 1990. He was trained as a lawyer, and he was committed to the First Amendment. Even though he found flag-burning abhorrent, he saw that as protected speech. The other thing he was proud of was what he did for the 5th district: support for the Fairchild Air Force Base, the Veterans Administration hospital in Walla Walla, and farmers. He saw NAFTA as a way to assure markets for ranchers and farmers and fruit growers. Even though it was a divisive issue, he saw it as a piece of legislation that benefitted not only the 5th district but the entire US economy.
Will there be another Tom Foley or space for a leader like him in the middle?
JP: I’d say it’s unlikely in the short run. There would have to be a sea change in the politics in the country.
KB: I can think of a couple of potential people in the middle. One is Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, who lost his seat in 2010 and for the past 11 years has been campaigning for climate legislation and trying to meet members of Congress where they are and show them the benefits of how some positive legislation could help mitigate the climate crisis. I would admit Bob is my favorite Republican because he’s thoughtful. He’s conciliatory. He doesn’t demonize his opponent. And for those reasons he’s no longer in Congress. And then there is a group called the House Problem Solvers Caucus that has set aside partisan differences. Within that group, I think there are some kindred spirits to Tom Foley.
What new insights about Tom Foley did you gain by writing this book? Did anything surprise you?
JP: People often disagreed with him, but they went along with him anyway. I was in his office in the early ’70s, just as he was getting prepared to ascend into leadership. The way he behaved and worked with people in the Republican party masked any real signs of differences. Even if they had political differences, it never became personal. There was not that division with the other party. I was surprised at the magnitude of the conciliations.
KB: I did most of my research between 1996 and 1999. At the time I did my initial research, I could not find anybody who would speak critically about Tom Foley, about his policy or campaign strategy or the way he dealt with any of his colleagues and leadership, and I thought that was because he had recently left office and was still a force to be reckoned with in Washington, D.C. When we picked up Foley 15 years later, we re-interviewed people, and the consistent thing was no one would say discouraging words about Tom Foley. Even off the record. The praise for Foley was as strong as it was in the years right after he left office.
How did your collaboration work? What distinctive perspectives did each of you bring to the research and writing?
JP: I was one of Kenton’s professors. He did his dissertation on Foley. We collaborated, but it was a time-lapse collaboration. I was in St. Louis when we were finishing up, working on the book in a small room in an apartment in the midst of COVID. So, it was hard to do everything that I wanted to, especially being 3,000 miles away from Foley’s papers, which are at WSU. In the summers, my wife and I would go to northern Idaho. We have an off-grid cabin north of Sandpoint. Kenton and I could get together on occasion and talk through stuff. That was a real help. We’d get together in Sandpoint for lunch. He did more of the biographical chapters. I did more of the data-based analysis.
KB: My dissertation was the skeleton on which we added more insight and interpretation and analysis. When I wrote the dissertation, things were so fresh. It was very journalistic, like an extended magazine article. With the benefit of the passage of time, we had more of a historical perspective. We could put it in a larger history and political context. I think, out of the nine chapters, I wrote four and John wrote three. And we collaborated on the introduction and conclusion. So it was a pretty evenly split manuscript. John emailed me on October 1, 2015, saying we had been invited by Burdett Loomis, the editor of the series at the University Press of Kansas, to do a book on Tom Foley. We met face to face in Sandpoint in 2016. In 2019, I went to Kansas, where John was living at the time, to talk with the editors of the series.
JP: I benefitted from having Kenton as part of the effort. After all, he’s a professional writer and he had long-term knowledge of Foley’s career from working as a journalist He made the book much better.
KB: I benefitted from John’s political science training to help me better understand things like congressional politics and relations between elected leaders and their constituents and, in particular, transformative and transactional models of leadership, both of which Foley exemplified at different points in his career.
How will historians and congressional scholars view Tom Foley in the long run?
JP: We’re probably biased, but he will be a model of Congress at its best. We will always put him at the top of congressional leaders. On the one hand, he was an effective, collaborative and instrumental leader, but he was also a really good guy. I was in my early 20s when I was in his office, but he treated me well. He was a kind and good person, and I was proud to have that connection.
KB: As the subtitle of our book suggests, he was a key transitional figure in a long line of Democratic speakers that went back to the late 1940s, with one exception. It was a period when Democrats were the dominant party in Congress and had a pretty solid majority in the House. Since 1994, we have had seven House speakers, counting the current one, Mike Johnson. It’s a period of more volatility, both between parties and within parties. I think it will be harder for future speakers to have the kind of longevity that Foley and those who preceded him had.