Our Voice: Tom Foley modeled ways to mix politics with respect

When Thomas S. Foley died last month, we didn't write an editorial to mark his passing, but we haven't stopped thinking about him.

It's tough not to be reminded about his gift for statesmanship in an era when the absence of the qualities Foley embodied seem to threaten the well-being of every American.

Foley, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from June 1989 to January 1995, died Oct. 18 of complications from a stroke. He lost his re-election bid for Washington's 5th Congressional District in the 1994 Republican 'revolution.'

He's remembered as a national figure, but also as the consummate congressman, representing his constituents in the sprawling 5th District in ways that will benefit the residents of Eastern Washington for generations to come.

When Foley lost his seat after 30 years in office, the Spokesman Review newspaper in Spokane described his legacy this way: "He worked to strengthen agriculture and defense, keep electricity affordable, make forestry sustainable, reduce pollution, improve airports, enhance universities, renovate downtowns, widen killer highways, boost mass transit, create scenic trails, fund research that fed the world, nourish hungry children, combat bigotry, support the elderly and show, for those with eyes to see, that politics still can be an honorable profession."

Tri-Citians who remember the two-lane death trap that connected Ritzville and Pasco before improvements to Highway 395 were completed, understand what the Spokesman meant by "widen killer highways."

But it's as a role model for current members of Congress that Foley may make his greatest contribution. His death is an opportunity for other public servants to measure their performance in office against Foley's tenure.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who represents the 5th District, praised Foley for putting country ahead of party.

"Mr. Speaker, as long as I serve the people of Eastern Washington, I promise to make you proud," McMorris Rodgers said during a memorial service in Spokane. As a member of the House GOP leadership, she's in a position to make good on that promise.

President Obama praised Foley last week as an example of a consensus builder and noted how much politicians like him are still needed in Washington.

"It was his personal decency to bring civility and order to a House that demanded both and still does," Obama said.

"At a time when our political system can seem more polarized and more divided than ever before, it can be tempting to see the possibility of bipartisanship progress as a thing of the past," Obama said. "It can be tempting to wonder if we still have room for leaders like Tom ... Well, I believe we have to find our way back there."

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., underscored Foley's appeal when he called him "the last speaker of the whole House."

We're hoping he's not the last -- just the most recent.