An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New film about Tom Foley to premiere in Spokane Thursday evening

C-SPAN screenshot
Tom Foley died in 2013, 19 years after he lost his 1994 re-election bid to Congress.

The documentary will be shown at an event sponsored by WSU's Foley Institute. It will be accompanied by a discussion with former MSNBC political host Chris Matthews.

The late House Speaker Tom Foley is getting new attention in a time of political discourse that he might have found troubling.

On Thursday, Washington State University’s Foley Institute will screen a new documentary about the Spokane Democrat. It created by Seattle TV producer Dennis Bracy.

“It’s actually been a documentary in the works for close to two decades now. Dennis Bracy shot some film of Tom Foley after he left Congress several years ago now. A lot of the film is Tom telling stories about his years in public service," said Foley Institute executive director Cornell Clayton.

Foley was elected to Congress during the 1964 Democratic wave and worked his way up to the speakership. In 1994, after 30 years in Congress, he was defeated by George Nethercutt in a Republican wave election.

Clayton says the documentary is the first of two media projects that will bring Foley back into the political spotlight. He says a biography about Foley is due out within the next year. Both focus on Foley’s ability to work with others in Congress.

“There was a time when our politics was less divisive than it is today and what that requires is people in leadership who have fundamental values that are reflective of the norms of democracy and an understanding of what democracy requires of us," he said.

Thursday’s event is open to the public (6 pm at Riverside Place in downtown Spokane). The screening will accompany a discussion about Tom Foley that features Chris Matthews, former host of the program “Hardball” on MSNBC. You can order tickets at the Foley Institute’s website.

Chris Matthews says he used at least one anecdote from Tom Foley in his 1988 book "Hardball."

Excerpts from SPR's interview with Chris Matthews, talking about Tom Foley.

In the early 1980s, Matthews worked for then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Chris Matthews: “I was a good friend of Tom Foley’s. I really liked him. I was with Speaker O’Neill as his administrative assistant for six years, starting in early 1981. I was surrounded by the leadership. Jim Wright of Texas was the majority leader and Foley was the whip. The majority whip runs the whip meetings on Thursday morning, which are really wild. They’re like an old cowboy movie with Geronimo leading the fight. They’re war councils in many ways and Foley was always the calm figure up front. He ran the meetings and he always sat right behind the speaker. So I was with him all the time. I had this rather impressive desk outside the speaker’s ceremonial office and he would come by and he would just chat. I knew him pretty well. He looked out for me when things got difficult sometimes. He was a good friend. So was Heather (Foley’s wife).”

On how Foley managed to stay in office so long as a Democrat serving a conservative district.

Chris Matthews: “He had to represent his district. He came in with a wave (1964) and he went out with a wave (1994). Thirty years of basically reconciling his eastern Washington political base with a sometimes very liberal Democratic Party in Washington and he had to manage those. One of the ways he did it was he focused on agricultural issues, which can be very bipartisan, and domestic issues in his district he worked on. I think he was careful on gun control, things like that. I think he was aware he represented Spokane and eastern Washington and he had to be their congressperson as well as a Democratic leader. The tricky part is, when you get into leadership, you have to be with the Democratic center. You have to be where it’s at. You can’t just say I’m out here somewhere. I’m a Western Democrat, not a New York or a Chicago Democrat. That’s always the balancing act.”

On Foley’s disdain for obvious partisan tactics.

Chris Matthews: “In 1981, Ronald Reagan came into office, immensely popular. He cut taxes across-the-board, but very helpful to the wealthy people. In 1982, there was a decision by both parties that they had to adjust some of the Reagan economic program. It was too balanced toward the rich. They came up with this Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. We had to have somebody go on television. One of my jobs was to figure out who’s going to respond to Reagan every Saturday (at the time the president gave a short Saturday morning radio address, followed by a response by someone from the opposing party). The speaker was trying to figure out who to pick to respond to Reagan on this new tax increase. And I said, ‘What about Tom Foley?’ And the speaker says, ‘He’ll never do it.’ Most Democrats did not want to go to war with Ronald Reagan. I know this from trying to get them to answer on radio every Saturday. They didn’t want to fight with Reagan. He was too popular. I told the speaker I think Tom will do this. So I went to see him and said, ‘The speaker wants you to respond to the president on this tax issue in 1982.’ And he said, good, I’ll do it. Somehow I got the job of writing his speech. So I write this speech and I basically tear into Reagan. I said he’s no good. He’s done everything wrong. But on this thing he’s done the right thing. He’s for the tax increase. Tom came back to me and said, ‘Why don’t you just say the president is for this tax bill and the president is right? Why don’t you just say that? Why do you mix it up with all this negative stuff?’ That’s Tom. He knew his job was to speak for the party, but he knew there was a way to do it that wasn’t just going to be aggravating to his people at home. He was supportive of Reagan and, at the same time, carrying water for the Democrats to get the bill passed. That’s Foley.”

Did he know of anyone Foley didn’t get along with in Congress?

Chris Matthews: “Not that I could find. He could get along with Dick Cheney. There’s the proof. He was a peace guy, a great, peaceful personality.”

One last note about Foley:

Chris Matthews: “He once told me a great story. I was looking for anecdotes for my book “Hardball” in 1988. One of the rules I had that I’d come across from Machiavelli is that one of the most powerful things you can do for somebody is let them do you a favor. Once someone has helped you in a campaign or anything like that, they become your supporter for life. Always ask for help. Don’t try to do everything yourself because if you ask for help, you’ll get an investor. What you need in life is a lot of investors, people that believe in you. He told me about the time his plane crashed in eastern Washington and the guy who rescued him became his biggest contributor for life. It’s so counterintuitive but people really like people they help.”

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.