Reflections on Bob Michel's Career
Robert Henry Michel, 1923-2017
Robert Henry Michel, the longest-serving Republican Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and recipient of the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, died early this morning, Friday, February. He was 93.
Michel served as the top Republican in the House for 14 years, during a transformative era in American history. He led Republicans through the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the years preceding the transfer of power in Congress from Democratic to Republican for the first time in 40 years.
Michel had a reputation as a skilled legislative craftsman, who knew his members, and who could achieve consensus among his colleagues, making him a vital and indispensible ally in the passage of the Reagan and Bush agendas in a Democratic-controlled House. He played a critical role in garnering majority votes for Republican budget resolutions, increased defense spending, landmark tax reform laws, trade legislation, criminal justice, reform of Social Security, the Gramm-Latta budget reforms, spending reductions, congressional sanction of the Persian Gulf War, and other major legislative initiatives.
Michel orchestrated the talents of a leadership team that included three future Cabinet secretaries, a Vice President, and a future Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. While loyal to Presidents Reagan and Bush, Michel was considered a man of the House, who did not hesitate to defend the Legislative Branch when he believed its constitutional prerogatives were being usurped by the Executive.
The hallmark of his tenure was his deep respect for Congress as an institution of government, his respect for his colleagues, and the practice of civility in the deliberation of public policy. He was a consummate legislator and consensus builder who believed that regardless of your political ideology or partisan agenda, you had to build bridges to be successful. Michel was known as a straight shooter whose word was as good as gold, and his firm handshake a guarantee of good faith. He was a powerful advocate for his Peoria-based district, particularly through his long tenure on the House Appropriations Committee. Michel served under six Speakers of the House and seven presidents, and as Republican Leader served as permanent chairman of three Republican national conventions.
Michel did not seek re-election in 1994, the year Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years. His successor, Ray LaHood, said of his mentor: “Michel came to the House every day to do the work of the people, and not to engage in ideological melodramas or political vendettas…To Bob, the harsh, personal rhetoric of ideological warfare had no place in his office, no place in the House and no place in American politics.”
Michel was born in Peoria, IL., March 2, 1923, to Anna Baer Michel, who was born in Tremont, Utah, the child of German immigrants , and Charles Henry Michel, who emigrated here from Nancy, France. The elder Michel lived in Clearwater, Oklahoma, harvesting wheat, before moving to Peoria to work at Keystone Steel and Wire as a toolmaker, while his mother was a domestic in Peoria, IL. Both parents were active in the Apostolic Christian Church.
The elder Michel insisted that his son work while being educated in Peoria public schools. He did, mowing yards, delivering papers and working in a tailor shop, factory and grocery store.
Michel was graduated from Peoria High School, the president of his class, and attended one semester at Bradley University in Peoria, prior to joining the Army in World War II.
Michel landed in Normandy on the fourth day of the D-Day invasion of Europe with the Thirty-Ninth Infantry Regiment and fought his away across France to Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded in action and credited with capturing a German machine-gun unit. He received two Bronze Stars, Purple Heart, and four battle stars.
After the war, Michel re-enrolled at Bradley, where he was a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity. There he joined the a cappella choir, where he met his wife of 55 years, the late Corinne Woodruff. They married on December 26, 1948, the same year they were graduated from Bradley, she with a degree in music and he in business administration.
Michel began a career in politics that spanned nearly 50 years, joining the congressional staff of then Congressman Harold Velde in 1949, as his administrative assistant. While Velde was consumed with his chairmanship of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Michel tended to the needs of the District, substituting for the Congressman at events and serving constituent needs.
Upon Velde’s retirement in 1956, Michel prevailed in a hotly contested, four-man primary race and eventually defeated Democrat Fred Allen in the general election to take the seat from Illinois’s 18th Congressional District, a region of the state once represented by Abraham Lincoln and Everett McKinley Dirksen. Allen, 57 years after his defeat, made it to Washington to attend Michel’s 90th birthday celebration in 2013.
Michel, had a conservative voting record in the House. He first served on the House Committee on Government Operations Committee and was appointed to a subcommittee chaired by the future House Speaker John McCormick of MA and ranking member, Bud Brown of Ohio, one of the most influential House Republicans of the era. Michel was named to the House Appropriations Committee, on which he served for 24 years, 12 of which as the senior Republican on the Labor, Health, Education and Welfare Subcommittee. He advanced in Republican leadership ranks, serving as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) from 1973 through 1974, and despite the loss of 42 seats in the 1974 Watergate midterm elections, he was elected Republican Whip in 1975, serving as the number two Republican in the House until 1981. He was elected the House Republican Leader following the 1980 elections that sent Ronald Reagan to the White House and gave the GOP 192 seats in the House and control of the U.S. Senate. Michel defeated Michigan Congressman and Chairman of the NRCC, Guy VanderJagt, for Leader in a close race dubbed the Workhorse (applied to Michel because of his legislative skills), versus the Showhorse , VanderJagt, (a spellbinding orator).
Michel was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994. President Reagan conferred upon him the presidential Citizens Medal in 1989. He received the first Congressional Distinguished Service Award in 2000.
Then President of France, Jacques Chirac, named Michel to the country’s most prestigious order, the Knights of the Legion of Honor in June 2004, during the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landing, “in recognition for your participation in the liberation of France and Europe during the Second World War.” Michel participated in ceremonies marking the anniversary in England and France, and was presented with his Legion of Honor award in September of that year by the French Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte.
Michel received many honors and recognitions. Speaker Newt Gingrich named the leadership offices on the second floor of the United States Capitol, the Robert H. Michel Rooms. A bridge spanning the Illinois River is also named after him as is a Veterans’ clinic in Peoria, the student center at Bradley University and the cloakroom at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington. Michel was also named to the Roll Call Baseball Hall of Fame for his record as a winning pitcher in the annual Congressional Baseball Game sponsored by the newspaper.
The Leader was a diehard fan of the Chicago Cubs and an avid golfer as well. He was a lover of music and an accomplished singer, often accompanied on the piano by his wife, Corinne. He performed the national anthem at the Republican National Convention in Houston, TX and was afforded the honor of conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, Utah. Gardening was also among his most favored pastimes.
Michel was preceded in death by his parents, a sister and his wife, Corinne. He is survived by a sister; four children, Scott, Chicago, Illinois; Bruce, San Antonio, Texas; Laurie, Alexandria, Virginia; and Robin, San Francisco, California; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Reflections on Bob Michel's Career
Statement by Frank H. Mackaman, The Dirksen Congressional Center
It was with great sadness that we learned today of Bob Michel’s passing. People who appreciate the virtue in politics have lost a champion.
The facts of his life and service to the nation are well known to the residents of central Illinois—born in Peoria in 1923, raised and educated there, a decorated veteran of World War II, a graduate of Bradley University, elected to the House of Representatives in 1956 and serving there until his retirement in 1995. He spent the last 14 of his 38 years in the House as the Republican Leader, elected to the post seven times by his colleagues.
Michel’s career coincided with increasing partisanship and ideological polarization in the House, with major generational and demographic changes in the membership and leadership of the House, with evolving institutional procedures, with profound changes in the balance of power between Congress and the White House, and with mounting public disillusionment with Congress’s capacity to address the challenges facing the nation. Bob Michel stood front and center during those epochal times.
He had the misfortune, however, to serve in the minority, outnumbered by the Democrats in the House for all his years there. Minority status did not preclude political and legislative achievement, however. His central Illinois constituents elected Michel nineteen times to his seat in the House.
Legislatively, Michel first made his mark on the Appropriations Committee, where he served for more than 20 years and led efforts to promote economy in government operations. The real tribute to his skill, however, occurred in 1981 during months of negotiations over President Ronald Reagan’s budget and tax bills. “My most exhilarating days,” Michel recalled years later, “were those during the first Reagan administration. We had only 192 members, but we enacted his program. And we had those issues, one after another, about seven votes in a row, I think, where we won by three or four votes. Now, that was satisfying. You’d go home at night and say, ‘Well, I did the Lord’s work today.’”
Michel may be most revered for something less tangible than reelections or legislative accomplishments. His friend and political adversary House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) put it best when Michel announced his plan to retire from the House in October 1993: “As prevailing political philosophies have changed over the years, Bob Michel remained steadfast in his commitment to consensus in the interest of the nation and the institution of the House of Representatives. His great dignity, his constant professionalism and his instinct for decency and moderation in the face of extremes have always been proof that politics can be an ennobling profession.”
A genuinely modest man, Bob Michel did not suffer the typical politician’s out-sized ego. Instead, he represented a Midwestern tradition of practical politics grounded in a conservative view of the role of government. As he once explained, “It is said by some Republicans that ‘government is the enemy.’ I disagree. The American people don’t believe that the government created by the Constitution is ‘the enemy.’ They believe—and our party has believed from Lincoln to the present day—that bad government, wasteful government, intrusive, bureaucratic, interfering government is the real enemy.”
I have always been impressed by the remarks Bob Michel delivered to his Republican colleagues upon his first election as Republican Leader, December 8, 1980: “My job is to orchestrate your many talents in such a way as to give us the best possible overall performance rating. To use the symphonic analogy, I know some of you prefer speaking softly as strings, others more vocally as woodwinds, some very loudly as brass and finally those boisterous ones for percussion, but in any event, the measure of our success will be how well we harmonize and work together.”
To me, even though his words were directed to Republicans, his analogy reflected a broader commitment to harmony, not dissonance; to cooperation, not confrontation; to principle, not expedience; to progress, not obstruction. His was the voice of reason now almost forgotten in a Congress increasingly rent by partisan division and over-heated rhetoric.
Frank Mackaman directs the work of the non-profit, non-partisan Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, Illinois. The Center houses the Robert H. Michel Papers.
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Reflections on Bob Michel's Career
Robert H. Michel (1923-2017) Obituaries
“Bradley University: Honoring Bob Michel”
“Leaders react to passing of Bob Michel,” Central Illinois Proud
“Robert Michel, Illinois Republican leader skilled at compromise, dies at 93,” Chicago Tribune
“Former GOP House Leader, Illinois Rep. Bob Michel has died at 93,” Chicago Sun Times
“Bob Michel: Remembering a Politician Who worked Both Sides of the Aisle,” Forbes
“Former House leader Bob Michel, a person and politician for the ages,” The Hill
“Bob Michel, GOP leader skilled at deal-making, dies at 93,” Los Angeles Times
“Bob Michel, Conservative Stalwart,” National Review
“Ex-House GOP Leader Bob Michel—a ‘Great Guy’ Who Symbolized Minority Mentality,” Newsmax
“Robert Michel Dies at 93; House GOP Leader Prized Conciliation,” New York Times
“Former U.S. House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a Peoria native, dies at 93,” Peoria Journal Star
“Ex-GOP leader Bob Michel, face of decency and public service, dies,” Politico
“Robert Michel, champion of Washington civility in senior House post, dies at 93,” Reuters
“Bob Michel, Last Leader of the ‘Old School’ House GOP, Dies at 93,” Roll Call
“Robert Michel, longest-serving minority leader in U.S. House, dies at 93,” Washington Post
“Statesman Across Five Decades, Dies at 93,” Weekly Standard
“Iconic Illinois Lawmaker Michel passes away,” Will County Gazette