Waiting For Opportunity to Knock

Tom Foley is the Accidental Tourist of American politics

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As the No. 2 man in the Democratic leadership, House majority leader Tom Foley should emit that almost audible hum of ambition that can be heard at the upper reaches of political power. But no, not a sound. It took considerable pushing and prodding to get him to enter politics at all. And when he did jump ( in, it was "accidents," he insists, that kept advancing his career. "The important thing," he says, "is to be prepared when an opportunity comes your way."

Opportunity is coming his way again. As Jim Wright staggers and falls, Foley is being heaped with bipartisan endorsements as the next Speaker of the House and second in line for the presidency. Explains Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson: "Cream rises to the top."

Foley would bring a very different style of leadership to the job. Where Wright tended to stake out his positions, then bend others to his will, Foley is an instinctive consensus builder. With George Bush still pledging to cooperate more closely than Ronald Reagan did with Democrats on the Hill, Foley's is a style that may be suited to the times.

Even the House pit bull, minority whip Newt Gingrich, speaks well of him: "He's easier to work with than Wright by a factor of 100. Unlike Wright, he keeps his word." If anything, Foley has a reputation among some House Democrats for being too conciliatory, bringing the Republicans into decisions too often. Even colleagues who admire him feel that Foley can be excessively cautious and prone to weigh every option.

"When you talk to Tom, you start biting your fingernails and you don't stop until you're up to your elbows," says Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski. "What he does is good, but sometimes getting there is frustrating." Still, Democrats who chafed under Wright's autocratic dealing can look forward to having their views sounded out more regularly. Says a congressional aide: "Foley is good about consulting with all the barons on the committees, then deciding what to do."

Liberal Democrat Thomas S. Foley, 60, has managed to win 13 elections to the House of Representatives from a mostly conservative Republican farming district around Spokane in eastern Washington. A big (6 ft. 4 in., 225 lbs.), gregarious Irishman, Foley can regale a gaggle of beer guzzlers with a slightly off-color tale, then quote Rousseau, Burke and Hobbes in a symposium of scholars at the Library of Congress.

As a rookie attorney just out of the University of Washington law school, Foley seemed likely to emulate the career of his father, a highly regarded state judge who exerted a powerful influence over his son until his death four years ago at 84. But in 1961 Washington's Democratic Senator Henry ("Scoop") Jackson hired Foley as a counsel to the Senate Interior Committee. In 1963 Jackson began urging his protege to run for the House. Foley agonized and held back for so long that in the end he arrived in the state capital to declare his candidacy just hours before the filing deadline. In November 1964, Foley was one of 67 new Democratic Congressmen who rode to Washington on Lyndon Johnson's substantial coattails, ousting a Republican who had served in the House for 22 years.

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