Politics 101: The new politics has no room for a giant gentleman
by Bruce SelcraigThe 5th Congressional District of Washington state is a rectangular chunk of land that borders Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia and stretches from the rolling oceans of wheat in the south, across the mighty Snake and Columbia to what remains of the ancient ponderosa pine forests in the north.
Progressive in parts, seemingly pre-literate in others, this fascinating district offers hip coffee bars in the shadow of grain silos, loopy white supremacists, the world's largest lentil farms, two gold mines, a rural all-jazz FM station, two Indian reservations, nine Superfund sites and, for some reason, a big community of new Soviet immigrants. And you thought Seattle was cool.
Dominated by unpretentious Spokane, home to two-thirds of the district's 540,000 residents, and the leave-us-be ethic of timber, farm and mining towns, the 5th District seems an unlikely place for trendsetting. But in charting last November's political earthquake, many analysts found the epicenter right here, where anxious average Americans performed a feat unseen in this country since before the Civil War.
They fired the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
They fired Spokane's favorite son, Tom Foley.
In the nation's most dramatic example of voter-revenge in an election that saw dozens of incumbent Democrats thrown out of office, eastern Washington dismissed a giant who had won 15 previous congressional races. As the West's most powerful politician, the courtly statesman brought back millions of taxpayer dollars to his district in the form of university research, farm subsidies, defense projects and cheap, dam-fed electricity.
But Foley, who passionately defended Congress in its sleaziest moments - at first he tried to keep secret the names of colleagues who bounced checks in the House banking scandal - had become the personification of an institution many of his constituents held in contempt.
"He forgot where he was from," went the talk-radio logic of many voters. "He cared more about the East than he did us," I heard often during my research in the district.
Foley's crimes? He was vilified for opposing congressional term limits, supporting an assault weapons ban, helping environmentalists too little or too much, not hating Bill Clinton and, ultimately, for seeming too fond of the wrong Washington.
Stir in a lethargic, predictable campaign against a pleasant Republican who, for a change, wasn't stockpiling AK-47s for Armageddon, and you have the recipe for a historic upset.
By just a scant 3,900 votes of the 196,000 cast, Foley's district elected Republican George Nethercutt, a 49-year-old Spokane adoption and estate lawyer, in his first run for office.
The political revolt of eastern Washington, like that of many other districts, can seem both complex - what was the real effect of Foley-bashing on talk radio or the Internet? - and blindingly simple: People just got tired of the same face after 30 years.
"But it really is a mystery in many respects," observes Washington State University history professor LeRoy Ashby, co-author of a biography of former Idaho Senator Frank Church. "This district's prestige and clout is gone forever."
Are you saying, I asked Ashby, that the 5th District has effectively screwed itself?
Many long-time Foley supporters apparently agonized over their votes, but none as openly as the region's environmentalists. For three decades Foley was a frequent and eager recipient of the timber industry's money, and it was on Foley's watch that eastern Washington's overcut forests came to look like a mangy dog's backside.
"Foley was not our champion," says Dave Crandall, executive director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council in Spokane. "The rank-and-file environmental community was very upset with him. Some (not Crandall) even wanted to form a Conservationists for Nethercutt group."
Yet Foley did fight to keep some semblance of democracy in Forest Service timber sales and probably kept some of those forests from being leveled altogether. Why couldn't environmentalists unite behind him for what may have been his last race? And why did others reject the man who had for so long fed them logs, irrigation water and cheap electricity? What exactly was the 5th Congressional District of Washington thinking?
Rip Van Foley
Maybe it is unfair. A moment out of context. But 5th District environmentalists, when assessing Foley's commitment to forest stewardship, inevitably recall his fly-over tour of the district's Colville National Forest during which he gently, and oh so symbolically, nodded off like a big St. Bernard.
It was an eloquent statement of Foley's priorities. You can be sure he didn't fall asleep in meetings with Weyerhauser officials or English royalty. Trees - logged or standing - just didn't excite him.
An attorney friend of Foley's once joked: "Tom has an active aversion to fresh air." The green community believed that because Foley seemingly had no emotional connection to the land, crucial forest issues became just another political duty - one which he usually delegated an aide, Nick Ashmore. (Ashmore, now a lobbyist for Boeing, did not return calls.)
"He hated the spotted owl issue," says John Osborn, president of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council. "And that was what the Northwest congressional delegation was talking about all the time."
For Osborn's council - one of the nation's most creative forest conservation groups - waking up Foley to the plight of the million-acre Colville Forest was a constant challenge.
"From a wildlife perspective," says Osborn, "the Colville is one of the most unique forests in the U.S. It's got grizzlies and wolves and the only herd of endangered woodland caribou in the domestic 48 states. It's incredibly diverse. The west side is wet; the east arid. It's a mosaic of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, some lodgepole pine. And it's got over 2,000 miles of logging roads. Basically, it's just been trashed by overcutting. We're just trying to save the pieces now."
While on one front the Public Lands Council challenged timber sales and monitored logging operations with its citizen-led Forest Watch Program, Osborn also set out to make mainstream voters hold Foley accountable for the Colville. So, a terminology change was in order. Henceforth, the Colville, which is entirely contained within the 5th District, would be referred to as "The Speaker's Forest."
Then the council began an advertising campaign with the message, "Your Colville National Forest. A Clearcut shame!', which placed photos of Colville clearcuts on thousands of bus boards, yard signs and postcards throughout the region.
"Foley started getting these clearcut postcards from hunters, fishermen and mainstream businessmen," recalls council director Dave Crandall with a grin. "His office was not amused. We think Foley saw his job as avoiding conflict. So we made that our goal - to create a conflict."
On the plus side, Crandall and Osborn say Foley helped get funding for an old-growth inventory and health study of the Colville. Foley also established a wilderness area, helped craft the National Forest Management Act, dealt with toxic contamination of the Columbia River and helped ensure the public's right to appeal timber sales.
"Foley understood the appeals process. Nethercutt doesn't," says Crandall. "Foley knew basic democracy was being threatened in the forest and he did something about it."
But because of Foley's inestimable power, his larger failure to protect the Colville from devastation will remain his legacy. "Someone who cared about the Colville," says Osborn somberly, "wouldn't have let the massive clearcutting happen." Consequently, says Crandall, "There was tremendous ambivalence about Foley among liberals and environmentalists. I'm not sure there was anything Foley could have done to win the environmental vote."
But for all the environmentalists who agonized over their votes, there were plenty of other voters who did not.
Guns were crucial
"They're after our" ... ziinnnngggg ZZANNGNGNG ziinnngggg ZZANNGNGNGOWWWWW ".... guns .... They're not gonna" ... YEOWWWWZIZNZNZNANANANZANG-NGNGNGNGN ... "stop."
The screaming whines of massive planers and lathes inside the Boise Cascade Kettle Falls plywood plant flood into the small company lunchroom every time the door opens, causing Skip Ginter to SHOUT EVERY OTHER SENTENCE, but I quickly get the idea. He voted against Tom Foley because the Speaker supported Clinton's crime bill, which included a ban on some assault weapons.
"I have quite a sizeable gun collection," says Ginter - gray overalls, gray muttonchop sideburns, 48. "I've got some auto-load shotguns, and I've ..." He's cut off by a young pregnant woman in gray sweatpants who asks Ginter if he really thinks he needs a machine gun for hunting. A fellow in a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt joins in and suddenly we're off on a discussion about the relative merits of ammo clips. Whoa, what about Foley?
"The people in Washington, D.C., have no idea of how we live," Ginter says. "Foley did some good things, but he quit serving us and started serving people in the East."
Did Foley, I ask, hurt the timber industry generally, or you specifically?
A long pause. "Well, not really," Ginter says.
Soon I'm out walking the floor of the plant, which sits on the Columbia River (actually Lake Roosevelt) about 80 miles north of Spokane, being eagerly led on a whirlwind tour of anti-Foley sentiment by Boise Cascade's human resources manager, Jim Levers, who is pleased Foley was defeated. "You gotta talk to this guy," Levers says, as we approach Rod Dupuis, who's pulling strips of veneer off a rumbling conveyor belt.
"Foley was out of touch with people like us," Dupuis yells to me twice.
There's no time for elaboration. We're off again, climbing a catwalk into a quiet, green control room, where Larry, a lathe operator, watches 400-pound, eight-foot Douglas fir logs get peeled down to fence-post size in about three seconds.
"I had voted for Foley in the past," Larry says, "but I just got fed up with him. It was the gun issue. Guns and abortion."
Anything specific Foley did to hurt your pocketbook? I ask.
He stops to think. "No, not that I know of."
Shift's over. Levers tells me that back in the lunchroom a worker named Gary Garrison should be waiting for me. "He always has something to say," Levers smiles.
A friendly fellow with Groucho eyebrows, Garrison comes prepared with a tape recorder - he's not too trusting of the press - and a file folder of political notes. He's the head sawyer at another Boise Cascade plant a few miles away, 53 years old, raised nine kids, has a high school degree, not a big church-goer, voted for Carter, Reagan and Bush - not Clinton - and, like many of his co-workers, had previously voted for Foley.
"I'm religious about voting," he tells me, listing the Endangered Species Act, property rights and crime as the issues most important to him. "I don't own an assault weapon, have no use for one, and I think I only know one person who has one," he says, "but the perception around here is that Foley attacked the gun." Even worse, Garrison says, was when Foley joined a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of a statewide referendum imposing term limits on Washington's elected officials. "Suing his constituents really hurt him," he says, parroting the highly effective campaign ads of Foley's opponent, George Nethercutt.
And why would Nethercutt make a difference? "I think he means what he says," Garrison states with conviction. "And he'll remember us."
Later that night, I have dinner down the road in Colville with Boise Cascade's Levers and Dick Just. Upper management fellows in their 50s, they dress more like golfers than loggers, enjoy Tom Clancy novels and order red wine before their main course: Tom Foley.
Dick Just starts off telling me of a meeting about two years ago in Spokane in which he and another company's manager met with Foley and representatives of the Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture. "After this meeting," Just says, "as everyone is leaving and shaking hands, Foley says, basically, "You forest products people have to understand you may cease to exist as an industry." I was just shocked. Here I was begging for his help and he was telling me the environmental lobby was so strong he wouldn't go out on a limb and support us."
Foley allied himself with "Eastern liberals, Kennedy and that bunch," Just says, explaining that we've "gone too far" on civil rights, federal entitlements, school lunch programs and regulation. "Until you've run a manufacturing plant," he tells me, "you can't conceive of the state and federal interference. Just moving our lunchroom (at the Kettle Falls plant) involved going through three different agencies."
Does he agree with some, I ask, that many eastern Washington towns, in order to survive, must wean themselves off a natural resources-based economy?
He leans in, removes his glasses and bores a hole through me.
"Liberals will tell you the U.S. should move into information technology, leisure, etcetera," he says. "What we're embarking on is a deliberate effort to lower our own production and thus our standard of living. Environmentalists are dooming us to becoming a second-class power in the world."
I took this to mean no.
These men seem almost invigorated by Foley's loss. They talk of Nethercutt opening up a field office in Colville, coming to town meetings, having breakfast with small-business owners. They hold Foley responsible both for individual acts of perceived arrogance and also symbolically for his allegiance to a government they seem not to trust. But even they can't muster much hatred for Foley, the man. "He's a gentleman and a fine human being," Just offers. "He just ceased to represent us."
"A very nice man'
Curiously, even as Foley's critics were linking him to every crisis short of apple-maggot infestations, they had a hard time calling him anything but Mister Foley or Speaker Foley. Kind, intelligent and approachable, Foley attracted little of the personal invective that drove so many recent political campaigns. Especially in Spokane County, which he just barely won, Foley was considered something of a community landmark, a grand library or hospital which, while it might not evoke fiery passion, was not to be ridiculed, for ultimately the institution reflects upon those who put it there.
Tom Foley was raised on Spokane's prominent South Hill, born to a respected county judge, Ralph E. Foley, and a teacher, Helen Higgins Foley. Almost anyone who considers the son's life traces his solemnity and even-handed dissection of issues to the way his father presided from the bench.
"People still talk about the time when Tom's dad was sentencing some criminal," recalls Gonzaga University President Bernard Coughlin, "and he was so reasonable and fair that as the guy is heading off to jail he's saying, "Thank you, Judge. Thank you." "''''As a young deputy prosecutor in Spokane County, Foley once said he learned from his dad "to not make decisions in the heat of anger and pointlessness of revenge."
In July 1964, one day before the congressional election filing deadline, a chance encounter with a local power-broker at the spiffy Spokane Club convinced Tom Foley to challenge the 5th District's 22-year Republican incumbent, Walt Horan. Foley became one of 67 new Democrats who rode in on LBJ's coattails, and though his Republican district only once in 30 years would vote for a Democratic president - Clinton, thanks to Perot - Foley managed to win all but a couple of races easily.
In Congress, with Washington's senatorial giants - Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson - as role models, Foley forged a reputation as a behind-the-scenes negotiator who rarely chastised other members in debate or led politically unpopular fights. An aide to former Speaker Tip O'Neill once said: "He's a just man. That's almost impossible to find in politics." Even Newt Gingrich, perhaps in a moment of weakness, called him "a very nice man."
Probably too nice to be Speaker, some of his own colleagues would say. He didn't twist arms like O'Neill. Once he even ruled in favor of the Republicans on a voice vote. Ralph Nader said he frustrated efforts to reform campaign finance laws and seemed incapable of standing up to big business interests. One congressman, Jim Trafficant, D-Ohio, dismissed Foley as an ineffectual "bellman."
The Speaker's tastes in classical music, foreign affairs and upper class bonhomie served him well in the capital, where he and his wife, Heather, whom he met in Scoop Jackson's office and married in 1968, merited "A-list" status on the power-party circuit. Recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his unflagging congressional support of England, Foley always seemed more at home on the shores of the Potomac than the Columbia - a belief only bolstered by his not returning to Spokane upon his defeat. But back in Fishtrap and Penawawa, most people didn't seem to care if Foley was more comfortable in a tuxedo at the Kennedy Center than he was behind a tractor or chainsaw. They cared that he pushed through trade deals that opened Japanese markets for Washington cherries, that he protected the farmers' Columbia Basin Irrigation Project from anti-pork reformers and that some $100 million in renovation funds flowed into Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base.
Some called it pork. Foley called it returning tax money to the taxpayers. He helped get a $10 million Department of Agriculture grant for the construction of a new $20 million library - named after his parents - at Gonzaga University.
"He did things for this district that nobody even knew about," says Father Coughlin, the Gonzaga president. "Everyone knew about our library, but he got millions in research funds for Washington State University. Everyone knew about the Air Force base (some think Foley saved it from extinction), but he also got money for the Spokane Intercollegiate Research & Technology Institute. Four years ago Boeing opened a plant in Spokane with 350 employees," Coughlin says. "That didn't just happen. Tom was instrumental."
There was a time when one's worth as a congressman was measured by such things, but in the disorienting world of last November's elections such politics-as-usual was turned into a liability.
Somehow George Nethercutt was able to convince at least some voters that Foley's getting funds for universities, job training and even a new Amtrak station for Spokane was all but reprehensible. The challenger did, however, have some heavyweight help in getting this message across.
No history with California
In Spokane's downtown federal court building, in a hectic office that seems decorated by United Van Lines, Nethercutt's district director, Erik Skaggs, remembers a phone call he got last year.
"I was just working in our office one day and the phone rings," says Skaggs, an ambitious young staffer who volunteers that he was student body president of every school he attended. "Somebody says, "Erik, it's Ross Perot for you on line two." He was calling from his plane and he said, "I want to come help you. I want to get the Winnebago and hit the district." "''''Nethercutt couldn't say yes quickly enough. Perot drew 23 percent of the 5th District's voters when he ran for the presidency four years earlier.
Nethercutt also benefitted from a $50,000, Charlton Heston-led TV ad campaign by the National Rifle Association, which had endorsed Foley in eight previous elections. National groups in favor of congressional term limits spent a reported $300,000 against Foley. And pulling the strings was national Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a former boxing partner of Nethercutt when the challenger used to work on the staff of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
"Our message was simple," Skaggs explains. "Congress is bad. Tom Foley is Congress. Every week we had a picnic in the park (alongside the Spokane River) with hot dogs. We were more of a populist campaign. Foley was popular with old-money families, business executives, senior citizens.
"But he had no history with the new influx of Californians coming to Washington," Skaggs continues. "They're tired of the welfare state and the direction our country is taking."
Foley and Nethercutt debated eight times in what were relatively tame affairs compared to mud-strewn races around the country. Nethercutt, who promised to serve only three terms if elected, stuck to general attacks on big government and labeled Foley a "tax-and-spend liberal" who had raised taxes on working families, seniors, farmers and single parents. His favorite line: "We need a listener, not a Speaker."
Foley, who spent $2.1 million on the campaign compared to Nethercutt's $1.3 million, portrayed Nethercutt as a callous demagogue who would oppose abortion even in the case of rape or incest and would cut Social Security, Medicare and education funding. Foley also reminded voters that, contrary to popular belief, Democrats had trimmed the deficit, cut the federal workforce and didn't raise taxes for most Americans.
Foley might as well have been speaking in Erdu.
Some supporters say privately that Foley, who had never before run negative campaign ads, was too slow in using them against Nethercutt. "Foley's not a demagogue," says Father Coughlin. "But maybe he should've been less a statesman and more a politician in this race."
Time magazine reported that as most House members rushed home after the congressional session in order to begin campaigning, Foley took five days to return from the capital. However, a close Foley confidant and veteran of several campaigns says it was always a losing battle: "Our polls never showed us over 49 percent - at any time - and they were deadly accurate."
With many of his core supporters demoralized, Foley's time-tested strategy of bringing home federal dollars and basking in congressional stardom seemed destined to become the political version of Chinese carry-out: Tasty, but easily forgotten.
Who really beat Tom Foley? For many voters, assault weapons and term limits were only the symptoms through which they expressed their dissatisfaction with Foley. (Since when do dairy farmers care more about machine guns than the price of milk?) Some undoubtedly felt massive, inexorable forces - immigration? environmentalism? a world economy? - were fouling their American dream, and that Foley couldn't help them regain it. Some were just Republicans who had always wanted a chance to vote for a legitimate challenger to Foley.
Some might be considered paranoid. "I had people seriously ask me about Blackhawk helicopters landing in Montana as part of some monstrous federal takeover of private land," Foley told me not long ago. "There were occasionally people in my district who went way over the line."
Some were spoiled Westerners who talk a nice game about wanting the government off their backs, but whined over military-base cuts or increased grazing fees. A few even admitted to thinking that if Nethercutt won he'd become the new Speaker.
It came down to personality
But for many who had previously supported Foley, there was something more fundamental about his character that finally made them jump ship. They didn't doubt his basic honesty; they doubted - strange as it sounds - that he could actually lead people, that he would fight unpopular battles for them.
Foley is a thoughtful and personally loyal man, but rarely did he show great political courage. (His opposition to a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning was a notable exception.) A reactive thinker, he learned which way the parade was going and followed it. He so exasperated Democratic colleagues with his timidity in battle that in 1992, Texas Democrat John Bryant stood on the floor of the House and called on Foley to resign. "For Tom Foley," Bryant said, "political combat ... is to be avoided if at all possible."
Consider the forest management issues that strongly divided much of Foley's district. No one suggests that healing wounds among timber workers and environmentalists would be easy.
"No one could do it," a Foley friend says. "One wants to cut trees; the other doesn't." But what prevented Foley from years ago starting a series of town meetings throughout timber country to let those seething towns vent their frustrations? Why wasn't Foley a one-man tent revival when it came to preaching the economic diversity gospel?
Says Boise Cascade's Jim Levers: "Foley had so much power he could've called together environmentalists and timber operators, got us into a room and forced settlements. He could've been a leader, and he chose not to be."
LeRoy Ashby, the Frank Church biographer, remembers watching the liberal Idaho senator walk into a town hall in 1980 that was filled with angry ranchers and right-wing zealots.
"Church stood there in front of them and gave a fiery, impassioned speech defending his positions," Ashby says, "and at the end they gave him a standing ovation. I don't think Foley ever exhibited that kind of in-your-face courage. It was hard to get any sense that he had a fire in his gut about anything."
"I think Foley was very uncomfortable with that kind of public conflict," says John Osborn of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council. "Yet, ultimately, his inability to intervene early in such crises resulted in explosive situations."
Osborn says he tried repeatedly to get Foley to play the lead role in convincing timber towns that "tremendously powerful forces of history" were bearing down on them and would make their dependence upon over-logging impossible to sustain.
"Foley was unwilling to convey that diagnosis," says Osborn, an internist at Spokane's veterans' hospital. "He had the perfect chance to be a catalyst for change, and he wasn't there. The good things he did in conservation will be overshadowed by his decision not to communicate with these communities."
Yet, in the harsh light of the Gingrich Congress, and Nethercutt's support of a bill that will increase salvage logging some 3 billion board-feet in the national forests, there is little joy among conservationists about being rid of Foley's lukewarm forest stewardship. "There's probably never been a Congress poised to do so much damage to the environment as this one," says Osborn.
Now people like Osborn are working overtime to turn horrific legislative proposals into merely bad ones. All of which makes Osborn a bit wistful. He remembers that even with Foley's faults, once a year the West's most powerful politician, who was often watching his weight, would lumber into their cramped Spokane offices, peel a banana for lunch and just listen to their problems.
They didn't agree nearly enough, but in these angry, illogical times, listening would still count for something.
Defeat is a form of peace
As I ride the elevator in the Washington, D.C., offices of clout-heavy law firm Akin, Gump, where Foley now works, just inches from serious suits talking about lunch with Kissinger, I remember how out of place you can feel in the capital's power corridors if you happen to be wearing hiking boots.
Having only seen him on a square Sony, I'm surprised that Tom Foley is so tall, 6-foot-4, and, at 66, fit. He pumps iron at the gym six days a week and eats like a New York model. The hound-dog face that launched a thousand editorial cartoons - -my staff always tried to get me to smile more," he says - seems rested and crisis-free. In his front pocket rests a black plastic comb, a reminder of a newspaper clip that said Foley used to wear a suit coat to college every day.
He offers no new insight into why he lost. Term limits. Guns. Too long in Washington. Clinton. Talk radio. He takes mild shots at the Contract with America and the get-government-off-my-back crowd. "We had people in the health care debate," he says, "telling us we should get government out of their Medicare." He smiles to let the punchline soak in.
Vanquished politicians must necessarily appear to be statesmanlike about their losses lest they be labeled sore losers.
But Foley seems genuinely at peace with his fate and humbled by his 30-year taste of power. "I have this satisfaction that my loss wasn't a repudiation," he says, bringing his trifocals to his lap. "I won my home county. I've had a very long and satisfying political career. I am not in any sense bitter. I lost one election in my life; unfortunately, it was the last one." n
Bruce Selcraig has written for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine and Sports Illustrated, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas, and can be reached by e-mail at Selcraig
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