THE BLOG
10/21/2013 10:46 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

My Debt to Tom Foley

I never told Tom Foley that I owed him a great debt, but he was the reason that The Hill, the newspaper covering Congress and national politics that I helped start in September, 1994, got off to such a fast start.

Foley, who died October 18 at the age of 84, was Speaker of the House at the time, but two months later, lost his speakership, and his Washington state House seat, when the so-called Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich gave the GOP control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

As a result, the political landscape was drastically changed and the new members of Congress didn't know the difference between us and the established paper that covered Congress, Roll Call. Better yet, it was a terrific story as Republicans paid back Democrats for their long subjugation and launched what one of Foley's obituaries called "the start of a furious new era in political warfare."

Foley, who became Speaker in 1989 after Jim Wright of Texas was forced to resign over an ethics inquiry led by Gingrich, was a believer in compromise that contributed to the success of both Presidents Reagan and Clinton. But compromise became a dirty word when Gingrich took over as Speaker, and remains to this day.

(After Foley lost his job, I predicted that Clinton would give him a consolation prize, a page one story in the first issue of The Hill headlined "Clinton Weighs Foley for Secretary of State," which when it didn't happen, the Washington Post's late David Broder commented, "I guess he wasn't heavy enough.")

Anyway, Foley, who later became ambassador to Japan, gave way to Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey, who took the no-compromise stance that still characterizes House Republicans. And when The Hill broke the story several years later of the revolt by young House Republicans that forced Gingrich to resign, our place in the Washington journalistic universe was confirmed.

As Armey, the Texas congressman who I am convinced was involved in the Gingrich coup, told New York magazine last week, present House Speaker John Boehner should have remembered that Republicans would get blamed for today's government shutdown, as they were forcing a shutdown in 1996 when Clinton was president.

"We were riding pretty high after the 100 days, and we felt that we were going to bring the Democrats to heel on our budget numbers," Armey recalled. "Newt insisted that presidents get blamed for shutdowns and that therefore we ought to develop a strategy that would take us to a shutdown. My position was that Republicans get blamed for shutdowns, because it's incongruous to the public to think that the Democrats -- who they perceive as people who love the government -- would shut down the government. But Newt was just as certain that he would outwit Clinton."

Foley, who died at his home on Capitol Hill, reflected on the lesson that Boehner and today's Republicans should have learned from his and Gingrich's experience. "I sometimes envy people in the House who are engaged in stopping something," he told the New York Times in 1990. "Most on my Congressional career, I've had to try to put together coalitions of support, or worry about moving legislative efforts. ... It's a lot easier to blow up the bridges and to block the crossings."

Would that Boehner and House Republicans had listened to him.

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