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Tuesday, March 24, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Mr. Ambassador' Foley Adjusting In Japan

The Washington Post

TOKYO - Tom Foley, who once herded recalcitrant House Democrats, spent a recent afternoon netting migratory ducks on an Imperial Family farm. The former House speaker, who used to tool around Washington in a battered blue Cadillac convertible, rode in a horse-drawn carriage to meet the emperor and buzzed over Okinawa in a U.S. F-15 fighter.

Mr. Speaker has gone to Tokyo.

Foley, 69, whose 30-year House career ended in the Republican tide of 1994 when he became the first House speaker in 132 years to be defeated for re-election, is adjusting to life as the new U.S. ambassador in a land so formal that, he says, "I go to bed with a tie on." The ambassador's residence, a massive museum piece where Gen. Douglas MacArthur received a humbled Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II, is still so new to Foley that he found himself locked in one morning when he couldn't figure out how to open the ornate front doors.

Already Foley, whose measured tone as speaker frustrated his more partisan colleagues, is winning praise for playing the conciliator in a war of words between Washington and Tokyo over Japanese economic policy. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata, who has been firing back at American critics lately, praised Foley for sticking to facts and avoiding inflammatory rhetoric.

"I don't think America could have a better person on the scene at this time than Tom Foley," said John Beagles, president of Boeing Japan, whose parent company is the largest employer in Foley's home state of Washington. "He's a great negotiator and a fantastic parliamentarian, and he will do an excellent job bringing the two sides together."

Foley has long been interested in Japan, traveling here often while in Congress and developing an extensive network of contacts. After President Clinton nominated him, Foley had to weather criticism that he was too "soft" on Japan, comments he called "a cheap shot." It was unfair to conclude that he would not perform his duty "just because I admire so much about this country and its people," he said in an interview.

Foley, an Anglophile who loves pomp and ceremony, chose the elegance of a horse-drawn carriage over a simple drive to the palace to present his credentials to Emperor Akihito. To his great disappointment, though, he was told the Imperial horses were on the Imperial Farm having an Imperial rest. But schedules were juggled, the horses were called back to Tokyo and Foley, wearing a morning coat, got his carriage ride.

Foley was using a cane that day because of surgery to repair damage to the artificial knee implanted last year. When the new ambassador was about to enter the room where the emperor received him, Foley suggested leaving the cane and walking on his own. That idea was quickly quashed by a horrified Imperial protocol officer: "The emperor has been told you have a cane, so you must have a cane."

Even familiar parts of Foley's new life - such as his morning workout - present uniquely Japanese problems. Foley likes to go to the gym before 6, but that's difficult for the Japanese bodyguards who must accompany him. Japan's strict gun laws require police to turn in their guns at police stations each night, and Foley's protectors have to go a considerable distance from their homes to retrieve their weapons before they fetch him.

There are some reminders of Congress, though. Just as in the House, seniority is everything in Japan. While Foley was only two heartbeats away from the presidency when he was speaker, now he's one of the newest guys on Embassy Row. Until recently, Foley was the second-newest ambassador, ahead of only the Belgian envoy. So at official functions, such as the reception at the Imperial Palace for the emperor's birthday, Foley was next to last in line.

"I think there are about six behind me now - not that I'm counting."

In some ways, it's been a rough start for the Foleys. Both were hit with the flu, which has killed more than 20 people and sickened almost a million in one of Japan's worst outbreaks in years. While taking his shoe off shortly after he arrived, Foley injured his new knee and ended up back in the United States for surgery.

But Foley said that so far he loves his new job and that it passes the McCormack Test - the advice then-House Speaker John McCormack, D-Mass., gave Foley, a House freshman, in 1964: "If you don't have a sense when you come to work in the morning that it is a rare privilege to be representing (your constituents), if you are not thrilled - just quit."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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