Foley, Thomas S. (1929-2013)

  • By Robert Marritz
  • Posted 8/20/2008
  • Essay 8703
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Unlike many future politicians, as a child Thomas Stephen Foley never imagined himself as a future occupant of the White House, or even in Congress.  Yet, as his background placed him in positions where opportunities appeared, he became Washington state’s highest ranking Member of Congress, ascending to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives.  As Speaker, he stood third in line from the presidency in the event the president and vice president should be unable to serve.  After 30 years in Congress as a progressive Democrat representing a conservative district, Foley suffered his first election loss in the “Republican revolution” of November 1994.  The loss did not end his life in public service. Instead, his reputation as a man of vision and scope catapulted him into the international sphere, when President Clinton nominated him to serve as Ambassador to Japan.  Spokane and the Inland Empire was the soil from which Foley grew, as the wider world that opened to him and his reputation for intelligence, judgment, and probity grew. Foley died in Washington, D.C., on October 18, 2013, at the age of 84.

Spokane and Seattle:  The Early Years 

Tom Foley was born on March 6, 1929, in Spokane, the only son of Ralph E. Foley and Helen Marie (Higgins) Foley.  His paternal grandfather, a “tough, old style Irish boss” (Biggs and Foley, 4), was a boiler shop foreman for the Great Northern Railroad who moved from Minnesota to the Spokane area in 1907, when Ralph was just 7.  Ralph went on to be the family’s first college graduate, earning his B.A. and law degrees from Spokane’s Gonzaga University, before becoming a deputy county prosecutor in 1927. 

Ralph Foley’s position in the prosecutor’s office -- he was elected County Prosecutor in 1934 -- enabled the family to settle in the prosperous South Hill section of Spokane.  Most Irish Catholic families in Spokane tended to live in less affluent areas north of the Spokane River and to vote Democratic.  The South Hill neighborhood marooned the Foleys pleasantly as a Catholic and Democratic island in an affluent Protestant and Republican sea. 

Foley’s childhood years during the Great Depression were comfortable, owing to his father’s government position, but his parents made sure that young Tom saw first-hand that many of their fellow citizens were suffering.  Foley recalls his father explaining the circumstances behind the Depression, and pointing out the less-fortunate men waiting for handouts of coffee and sandwiches from the nuns behind Sacred Heart Hospital. In the Foley household, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was revered as a great leader who had rescued the republic in its time of crisis.  But in the homes of his playmates, FDR was reviled.  Still, disparities in wealth were hard for young Tom Foley to compute: Seeing that his parents seemed not to have money worries, he recalls wondering why his family could not have a cabin cruiser like the neighbors. 

Foley had a lot of family in the Spokane area, including plenty of cousins.  The closest of these was Hank Higgins, son of a prosperous businessman on his mother’s side of the family.  Foley recalls visits to town by his “country cousin,” at age 9 as being filled with movies and cokes, well-funded by Hank’s father.  Years later, in July 1964, on the occasion of Foley’s uncharacteristically impulsive decision to run for Congress for the first time, it was Hank Higgins he turned to when he called his own Spokane bank and learned that he lacked the funds for the filing fee and, in fact, was overdrawn.

Without a doubt, the biggest influence on Foley was his father Ralph, a widely admired judge who logged 47 years in public service, including a state record 35 years on the Superior Court.  Foley’s father represented for him “a sense of public responsibility, performance and integrity.  . . .  [M]y father was not only highly regarded, but almost famous for his patience, for his courtesy, and for his judicial nature” (Biggs and Foley, 8-9).  Foley’s similar even-handedness and judicial nature  led former Speaker of the House Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill Jr., to remark of him, in a mix of admiration and vexation, that he could see three sides to every argument.

Another major influence that shaped Foley’s intellectual openness was his Jesuit education at Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University.   A friend, David Robinson, recalls the teenage Foley as tall, gangly, and uncoordinated.  “He was a superb scholar but a poor student.  . . .   He wasn’t interested in grades but he had tremendous depth” (Biggs and Foley, 12).  Foley, presciently dubbed “the Senator” by classmates, read widely and wrote for the school paper.  In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- a slight lisp,  Foley became part of a state championship debate team that went unbeaten through 75 matches.  During summers, he worked for the state highway department, in a YMCA camp, and for a local pharmacy.  In his college years he worked at a nearby Kaiser Aluminum mill, which he credits with sensitizing him to working people’s concerns.

In his junior year at Gonzaga University, Foley found himself unengaged academically and sought renewal by transferring to the University of Washington. Still, Foley credits his Gonzaga education and the inquisitive approach it fostered with preparing him for what followed.  The Foley family’s enduring connection to Gonzaga University is recognized by the name of its library: The Ralph E. and Helen Higgins Foley Center.

After graduation from the University of Washington, Foley pursued study at the UW’s Graduate School of Far Eastern and Russian Studies -- international interests that would surface later -- but the lure of the law led him to earn his degree from University of Washington School of Law and follow in his father’s footsteps.  In 1958, at age 29, after a brief stint of private practice with cousin Hank, he took a job as deputy prosecutor for Spokane County just as father Ralph had done some 30 years earlier.  He soon moved on to become an Assistant Attorney General for the state, and, in 1961, moved to the other Washington to serve as special counsel to Senator Henry M. Jackson’s (1912-1983) Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. In his three years with Jackson, Foley had the equivalent of a seminar on practical politics and the importance of attending to constituent concerns.  Jackson encouraged Foley to run for Congress.

Congress -- and an Auspicious Marriage 

Tom Foley has described himself, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as a Type B personality.  He had thought about a run for Congress -- someday.  In July 1964, while in Spokane on Interior Committee business, a staunch local Democrat in effect dared the normally placid Foley to file for Washington State’s Fifth Congressional District seat.  The seat was held by Walt Horan, a popular Republican 22-year veteran in a solidly Republican district.  Helped by Jackson with fundraising, advice, and political support, Foley’s impulsive, last-minute campaign was not only successful -- he shocked many by eking out a 12,000 vote win -- but was also marked by extraordinary graciousness between the candidates. The Foley-Horan courtesies continued after the election.  Back in the capital, Horan took Foley into Republican and Democratic cloakrooms and introduced him around, and Foley hosted a farewell reception for the Horans -- gestures unimaginable in more partisan times.

As a freshman congressman, Foley was appointed to the House Agriculture Committee but asked the leadership to consider also a second appointment to the Interior Committee, which he was very happy to get.  Both were helpful to his Northwest constituency.  He generally supported many of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs -- Medicare, aid to education, and urban issues -- but maintained his independence.  When he opted not to support a Johnson rent-supplement program, he earned a withering rebuke from the president.   He won re-election in 1966 with a 57 percent plurality, despite his opponent’s claim that he was part of a “rubber stamp” Congress.

In 1968, at age 39, Foley married Heather Strachan, an independent-minded 28 year-old he’d met five years earlier when both worked in Senator Jackson’s office.  Heather, who had lived abroad while her father was attached to USAID posts in Greece, Korea, Latin America, West Pakistan, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was in her final year at George Washington University Law School.  The wedding took place in Ceylon, in a ceremony that featured native dancers, drummers, and elephants.  Heather intended to work as a lawyer, but soon became involved in her husband’s congressional office.  The lure of being useful in Congress’s larger stage, and Foley’s complete trust in her, led the pair to form perhaps the most unique and powerful marital-cum-political partnerships ever seen on Capitol Hill.  As Foley rose in power in the House, Heather, who wielded great authority as his unpaid assistant, would be controversial and draw criticism.  

Tom and Heather Foley were as close as any couple who work and live together in the pressure cooker of public life, and without the distraction of children, could be.  But they were nearly polar opposites in their style of dress.  Whether in Washington, D.C.. or in his home district, Foley favored dark suits, believing that he should dress the way people expected their congressman to dress.  Heather favored a much more informal look -- often sandals, a print cotton dress, with her hair in a ponytail or a braid. 

Moving into Leadership 

In 1975, the post-Watergate House, with 75 newly elected Democrats, was eager to break the iron-fisted rule of committee chairmen.  One of those to topple was W. R. Poage (1899-1987), a 40-year House veteran and chair of the Agriculture Committee.  Foley, by then number two in the committee majority but ever the gentleman, argued that Poage should be retained and nominated him.  But Poage was defeated and, at age 45, Foley became the youngest chair of a major committee since 1900.  That same year, Foley, a skilled parliamentarian, was named chair of the reform-minded Democratic Study Group.

Negative fallout from Watergate helped elect Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.  The same year Foley was elected chair of the Democratic Caucus and won re-election that year by 56 percent.  Two years later, in a rare three-way race, he won with under 50 percent overall, painted by his foes, as always, as elitist and too liberal for his district. 

In Ronald Reagan’s defeat of President Carter in 1980, many prominent Democrats -- including Senate Appropriations Committee chair Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) -- fell to a GOP tide that gave Republicans control of the Senate.  Foley squeaked by with just 52 percent over a well-financed opponent who had made baseless allegations against him -- e.g., that he supported experimentation on live human fetuses. 

With formation of the 97th Congress after the election, an opening was created for Majority Whip, the number three leadership position in the House.  Majority Leader Jim Wright (b. 1922) of Texas asked if Foley would take the job, which he did.  Though he had to give up his job as chair of the Agriculture Committee, the vastly increased scope of the Whip’s job allowed Foley to play a vastly larger role in national and international issues. 

A Republican White House

The 12 years following the 1980 election -- two Ronald Reagan terms and one for George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) -- were challenging for Foley and House Democrats but, anomalously, offered them a stronger hand than they'd had with a Democratic White House. With a Democratic president, a Democratic Congress is expected to enact White House initiatives with little fuss; when the White House is in GOP hands, a Democratic House or Senate wields the party’s agenda.

Foley’s rise to national prominence continued when Reagan, swept into office on promises of tax cuts and shrinking government, was persuaded to support $98 billion in tax hikes as a means of reducing a growing federal deficit.  When it appeared that the votes to support the deal were in trouble, Speaker O’Neill tapped Foley to go on national television and make the case for the increase.  Foley succeeded, influencing scores of votes from both parties.  “A star is born,” crowed O’Neill” (Biggs and Foley, 75).  “[Foley] is probably one of the best natural legislators in the House, a man who is respectful of the opinions of others even as he is forceful in the advocacy of his own,” opined one source (Barone and Ujifusa, 1157). 

Foley won re-election in 1982 with 64 percent of the vote.  He had the support of the conservative Spokane Spokesman Review, on the strength of his increasingly lofty position in the House, and his efforts on behalf of wheat exports to Japan signaled the sorts of things he could do for his district that no new member could.  Two years later, facing a new GOP opponent, and even with the popular Reagan leading the Republican ticket, Foley managed a stunning 70 percent victory.

In the final years of Reagan’s presidency, Congress took the lead on many matters, including deficit reduction.  A thrust for deficit cutting came from the need to raise the federal debt ceiling, which had more than doubled during the preceding five years to more than $2 trillion.  A procedural solution appeared in the form of a Senate proposal to balance the budget known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings.  There was broad agreement on the goal, but little sense of how to implement it.  A major role in negotiating and brokering a solution fell to Foley. 

A Passion for Fairness 

In March 1984, Speaker O’Neill announced that he would retire at the end of 1986, the close of the 99th Congress,  which resulted in Jim Wright of Texas taking over as Speaker and Foley being elected Majority Leader, the number two position in the House.  Then, as throughout his career, some in his party thought Foley not aggressive enough, but his growing reputation as a problem solver and consensus builder proved a good complement to Wright’s more partisan tendencies.  Foley easily won re-election in 1986, but a revolution against the Democrats, who had long controlled the House, was brewing among House Republicans, led by a charismatic Georgia Congressman named Newt Gingrich.

After October 19, 1987 -- “Black Monday” -- a day which saw a panicky U.S. stock market plunge by some 35 percent, Foley presided over a budget summit that hammered out a compromise between the Congress and the administration.  In 1988 and 1989 he was voted the most respected Member of Congress. 

With election of George H. W. Bush as president in 1988, along with a Democratic Congress, Americans again opted for a divided government, a situation that had obtained for 30 of the prior 50 years.  But the huge deficits amassed during the Reagan years of tax cutting would prove a troubling legacy for Bush.

In June 1989, Foley became Speaker when the seething resentment of Gingrich-led House Republicans -- after decades as a powerless minority -- brought ethics charges against Speaker Wright that eventually led to his resignation.  It was a bitter chapter, and characteristic of the increasing hardball politics and partisanship in the House.

As Speaker, Foley’s international reputation soared as he often traveled to Europe and Asia to promote trade and build relationships.  His international tendencies may have been set for good in 1967, when, as a young congressman, he hosted a Japanese delegation that had, through miscommunication, been rudely treated by Representative Poage.  Foley wanted to make amends.  Impulsively, he invited the group to dinner at his house.  He was a bachelor at the time and worried how he might entertain them.  Luckily, he had a Japanese American intern who offered to prepare some Japanese dishes.  Should I buy sake? Foley asked.  No, she said, scotch.  The dinner was a great success.  Despite the language barrier, the group ended a fine evening, singing songs in Japanese and English, no doubt aided by the scotch.

As Speaker, Foley focused more than his predecessors on fair and effective functioning of the whole House -- the minority as well as the Democratic majority -- believing that this best served his party, as well as the institution itself.  In spite of his progressive voting record -- he consistently voted pro-choice, for the Equal Rights Amendment, against capital punishment and school prayer, and he opposed, as poor ideas, constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and require a balanced budget -- he remained popular in his conservative Fifth District.

Early in his days as Speaker, Foley had to confront a crisis that plagues many Americans:  his weight.  At a tribute dinner, he saw video images of himself over his 24 years in the House.  The 91 pounds added to his ursine frame put him at nearly 300 pounds.  A physician recommended a diet that he and Heather promptly adopted.  He also turned to intense physical exercise to turn fat into muscle, aided by in a daily routine humorously reported in The New York Times.

"Any way you slice it, Thomas S. Foley, the Speaker of the House, is a big man. He stands 6 feet 3 inches. He weighs 225 pounds.  His biceps measure 16½ inches around.  As he lopes into the University Club gym here for his daily predawn workout, you immediately comprehend the ancient primal correlation between size and leadership.  But with his purple tank top ripped at the seams to accommodate his bulging chest, the Speaker looks more like a Beastie Boy than the official who is two heartbeats away from the Presidency. 

“ 'In public life, there's an awful lot of food,' [Foley] says. . . .  On some evenings, he attends three or four receptions, plus a dinner or two. Almost everywhere, he encounters high-fat offerings" (Seelye).   

With dedication, Foley’s regimen was spectacularly successful. He dropped 80 pounds.

As Speaker, Foley had little difficulty dealing with a Bush administration.  Sixteen of his 24 years in the House were served while Republicans occupied the White House.  Intellectually and temperamentally, he was able to look for common ground, not only with the GOP, but with extreme wings of his own party.  But split government often meant stalemate, as even highly popular measures -- such as an increase in the hourly minimum wage over a three-year period from $3.35 to $4.55, and the Family and Medical Leave Act -- lacked enough votes to override a Bush veto. 

New Speaker Foley was immediately hailed as a wizard for helping engineer a congressional pay raise by tying it to ethics reform.  The pay issue was a touchy one but had to be solved, as salaries for senior judiciary and executive branch positions are tied to congressional salaries and were not keeping pace with private sector compensation.  Foley’s credibility allowed him to strike a “no blame” agreement with Republicans that instituted an increase, effective in the next Congress. 

In budget summit negotiations -- a recurring problem -- Democrats insisted on the need for tax increases, along with cuts in spending, as part of a deficit reduction package.  Reluctantly, Bush agreed.  Blame would be shared, but the agreement outraged House Republicans.  Bush’s breaking of his “read my lips, no new taxes” promise during the 1988 campaign helped pave the way to his defeat in the 1992 election.

The highest profile issue to confront the House in the 102nd Congress was provoked by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.  Foley and others urged use of economic sanctions, but Bush asked Congress to authorize military action -- the first such authorization since World War II.  Foley voted “no” as a matter of conscience, but after an emotional debate of more than 20 hours, the measure passed 250-183 with bipartisan support.   Once bombing commenced, a follow-on resolution expressing support for U.S. troops passed with overwhelming support.

Other measures during Foley’s first full term as Speaker were no easy thing, the savings and loan scandal foremost among them.  Ethical questions that arose for five Senators in the S&L bailout were compounded by revelations that the “House Bank” had allowed certain members to be overdrawn, some on many occasions.  It mattered little that the House Bank was not a bank in any conventional sense, and that the only money on deposit came from members themselves.  The perception, largely true, was that Congress enjoyed privileges ordinary citizens did not.  Public approval of Congress fell from 56 percent in 1987 to an all-time low of 17 percent in the media feeding frenzy.   

The Speaker alone had no power to appoint or fire the Sergeant at Arms, but Foley took responsibility for the matter and urged reform.  The most painful aspect of the episode for Foley was that it drew criticism to Heather Foley, as the Speaker’s principal aide.  Members from Foley’s own party, under pressure at home, called for Heather’s firing and the Speaker’s ouster.

Reforms were finally adopted in the 103rd Congress, but dissatisfaction with Congress gave House Republican activists an opening they would use to wrest control from the majority.  Foley won reelection in 1992, but, ominously, his approval ratings in the Spokane area dropped to the mid-50s.

Changing of the Guard 

The 103rd Congress, the first in 16 years with both a Democratic president and Congress, raised more expectations than it could deliver.  In February 1993, it swiftly passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, a popular law that President George H. W. Bush had vetoed twice.  But Congress was unable to enact much of the Clinton program, as divisions among House Democrats, a militant Republican minority, and Senate filibusters torpedoed the White House agenda.  Sensing an imminent changing of the guard in the House, long-time Minority Leader Robert Michael of Illinois, with whom Foley enjoyed a cordial relationship, announced that he would retire at the end of his term.

Passing the first Clinton budget was one of Foley’s great triumphs, as it squeaked through the House on a 218-216 vote.  It required every bit of Foley’s gravitas and persuasive powers, as the array of ethnic and gender interests among House Democrats, not to mention the party’s conservative wing, posed formidable problems.

Clinton’s push for of the North American Free Trade Agreement proved even more divisive, as the House Democratic leadership was split.  Pro-NAFTA Foley was at odds with Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Majority Whip David Bonior of Michigan, who opposed it, as did many other Democrats.  The Speaker’s vote in support cost him precious support from organized labor. 

A Partisan Revolution

The second session of the 103rd Congress was even less successful than the first.  Support was thin for Clinton’s top priorities: health care reform, campaign finance reform, and an anti-crime bill.  Foley’s change of heart to support gun control and an automatic weapon ban in the crime bill, after a horrendous shooting in the Spokane area, earned him the well-heeled opposition of the National Rifle Association, which previously had backed him. 

Campaign finance reform and other good government proposals also bit the dust in the 103rd Congress, the victim of threatened or actual Senate filibusters.  There were 28 filibusters in all -- 18 in the second session alone.  A New York Times editorial blasted Republicans for “disregard for the nation’s needs and the truth” on good government reform” (Editorial, “The No-Reform Congress”).

Blame for the poor productivity of the 103rd Congress may be laid to a too-ambitious Clinton agenda, a filibuster-prone Senate, and bloc voting by House Republicans, but Foley bore a significant share of the damage. 

Still, nothing was so costly as Foley’s decision to intervene in a suit challenging a Washington state ballot initiative that would have imposed term limits on state and federal officials.  The measure was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge William L. Dwyer (1929-2002), and later by the United States Supreme Court.  Foley’s position, as a lawyer and constitutional scholar, was correct and would have made his father proud.  But in the wake of his 30 years in Congress -- long enough, some felt -- and the battered reputation of that body, his position was seen by some as self-serving.  Along with his votes on gun control and NAFTA, a perfect storm was brewing. 

In the 1994 elections Foley started out 20 points behind his moderate Republican opponent, George Nethercutt, who promised to serve only three terms -- and later ignored that promise.  Nethercutt ran as an outsider against the consummate Washington insider, Foley.  “A rational, intelligent person would not [vote to] get rid of Tom Foley,” a farmer admitted (Sorenson).  But, unhappy and willing to “send a message,” he would do just that.  Nethercutt won by just 4,000 votes in a watershed year that gave Republicans control of both House and Senate.  In defeat, Foley was as gracious as his predecessor had been 30 years before. 

Private Life and the International Sphere


His career in Congress at an end, Foley did not choose to become a well-paid lobbyist, although his impeccable reputation would have been highly valued by clients.  For a time, he associated with the prominent Akin, Gump, Strauss law firm and served on several corporate boards.  He was assured a comfortable life, but his entire career had been in public service and he was not entirely at ease in the private sector. 

Always attentive to the needs of his district and deeply protective of the integrity of his beloved House, Foley’s 30 years in Congress and frequent travel made him an internationalist.  He had served on the Council on Foreign Relations, on The Trilateral Commission, as a member of the American-Japan Society, U.S. China Council, American Council for Germany, and Foreign Affair Council of Washington.  Many countries covered him with their highest awards.

When the opportunity arose for Foley to resume public service in a new and challenging sphere, as Ambassador to Japan, he decided to take it.  His frequent visits to Japan, a major market for Washington state exports and America’s best friend in a rising East Asia, had made him a star in the Land of the Rising Sun.  When the time came for him to present his credentials to His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, Foley was accorded an honor not offered even to President Clinton:  a ride to the palace in the Royal Carriage.  It was a small but highly meaningful gesture.

As a tribute from the part of the world that shaped him, Washington State University established the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service to foster civic education and policy research and to honor Foley's long service to both state and nation. 

Tom and Heather Foley lived in Washington, D.C. during his last years. After a period of ill health, he died at his home there on October 18, 2013, at age 84.


Jeffrey R. Biggs and Thomas S. Foley, Honor in the House: Speaker Tom Foley (Pullman:  Washington State University Press, 1999); Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics 1982 (Washington, D.C. : National Journal, 1982), 1157; Hendrick Hertzberg, Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 70-92, 465-80; Dennis Ross, Statecraft, And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), 173-215; “The No-Reform Congress,” Editorial, The New York Times, October 12, 1994 (; Timothy Egan, “No Headline, "Ibid., June 8, 1989; David E. Rosenbaum, “Man in the News: Thomas Stephen Foley; A Politician Outside the Mold,” Ibid., June 2, 1989; Katherine Q. Seelye,  “Working Out With: Thomas S. Foley; A Veteran Logroller Works on His Triceps,” Ibid., June 1, 1994; Jim Camden, “National Groups Attack Foley in Localized Ads,” Spokesman Review, September 16, 1994, p. B-2; Dean Miller, “National Term Limits Group Lets Money Do the Talking,” Spokesman Review, October 12, 1994, p. A-1; Eric Sorensen, “Foley's Farm Vote Wilts D.C. …,” Ibid., October 26, 1994, p. A-1; John Webster,Integrity in Office, Grace in Defeat, Ibid., November 13, 1994, p. A-18; O. Casey Corr, “Little Boy with Lisp' Will Lead the House; Young Foley Is Recalled in His Native Spokane,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1989, p. A-6; Kyung M. Song and Jim Brunner, "Former House Speaker Tom Foley Dies at 84," The Seattle Times, October 18, 2013 ( Note: This entry was updated on October 18, 2013.

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