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Remembering Tom Foley

A giant fell today.  Tom Foley — former House Speaker, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and ambassador to Japan — and the man who, along with Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole, did more than any other lawmaker to build the modern food stamp program and thereby largely eliminate severe hunger and malnutrition in America — passed away.

In this era of political smallness, Tom Foley stands out as the polar opposite.  Erudite, thoughtful, respectful of members of both parties, willing to go the extra mile for an outcome that was both bipartisan and sound, even if it meant relinquishing a partisan advantage — those were his hallmarks.  A current House member recently told me how, as Speaker, Foley would walk to the Republican side of the chamber and sit down next to House Minority Leader Bob Michel to work out fractious issues.

Tom Foley was one of the great figures in my life as well.  In 1977, as a young man working at the Agriculture Department, I found myself representing the new Carter Administration as Congress overhauled the food stamp program in that year’s farm bill.  Foley repeatedly called me to his side during the House Agriculture Committee’s weeks-long “mark-up” of the bill’s food stamp part, counseling me and offering invaluable advice.  That he could combine such a deep knowledge of the program and of poverty with such a strong appreciation for the concerns of every one of his committee members was astonishing.  He shepherded, through his committee and then the House, what became the Food Stamp Act of 1977, the principal anti-poverty accomplishment of the Carter years.

For me and others, he was an extraordinary mentor.  He was also one of the most decent human beings I have ever met.

Last week, I had the opportunity to see him a final time and say good-bye.  We talked about how far the nation has come — in no small part due to him — from the late 1960s when medical researchers found severe hunger across very poor parts of the deep South and Appalachia, with rates of nutrition-related deficiencies and conditions among children akin to those in some Third World nations.  “I’ll never forget what many of us working together were able to achieve,” Foley told me.  “I will always remember that.”

Well, I will never forget him.  I’ll always remember the kindness he embodied, the wisdom he imparted, and the example he set.

His is a life worth celebrating.  In our age of cynicism, Tom Foley showed that our political system can produce dedicated and effective leaders who make this country a better place for tens of millions of their fellow Americans.