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Ex-GOP leader Bob Michel, face of decency and public service, dies

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Former House Republican Leader Bob Michel spent 38 years in Congress. | Getty

After helping enact Ronald Reagan’s agenda, the longtime congressman — and his respectful, bipartisan legislative style — was pushed aside by Newt Gingrich.

Former House Republican Leader Bob Michel, who helped shepherd Ronald Reagan’s agenda through Congress only to be pushed aside by the rise of Newt Gingrich a decade later, has died at the age of 93.

Elected first in 1956, the Illinois lawmaker spent 38 years in Congress — more than half in his party’s leadership. No House Republican has held the Republican leadership post longer, and Michel’s death is sure to trigger a host of memories, all the more relevant because of what Washington has become in the years since.

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Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate how much the transition from Michel to Gingrich in 1994 impacted first House Republicans and then all of Congress as the fabric of civility soon fell apart and both political parties became more polarized.

“It’s day and night,” said Thomas Mann, a political scientist and long time student of Congress. “I see that transition — the shift from Michel to Gingrich — as the beginning of our really dreadfully dysfunctional Congress and a politics that became so personal and negative and anti-institutional that it really changed the whole character of public life in this country.”

As Republican leader, Michel’s legislative skills were genuine, albeit often under-appreciated in a House dominated then by Democrats. But history is likely to remember him most for the man himself and what many saw as the uncommon decency he brought to his job.

His was a mix of grace, humor and battle-tested bravery rarely seen now in the Capitol. As a Republican, he didn’t shy from carpooling with the gruff Chicago Democrat Dan Rostenkowski, riding back-and-forth from Illinois overnight in a station wagon equipped with a mattress in the back for sleep breaks between turns at the wheel. He played golf with one Democratic speaker, and built a lasting friendship with another. But Michel also took his shots, including a remarkable vote in June 1981, when he stunned Democrats by effectively seizing control of the House long enough to dictate the terms for debate for Reagan’s budget cuts.

Raised in a conservative Apostolic Christian church, Michel famously struggled to avoid swearing: “Judas Priest! By Gosh, by Jiminy” he might say, in what qualified as a moment of anger.

But lying wounded in Germany’s Huertgen Forest in 1944, then Sgt. Michel was tough enough too to keep firing his rifle so the tracers would direct his platoon toward a concealed German machine gunner. When Michel passed out later, he told this reporter, it was on a pile of manure.

“He made you proud to be around the place,” said political scientist Norman Ornstein, who has chronicled with Mann the downward spiral toward dysfunction in Congress.

House Minority Leader Bob Michel (right) shares a laugh with President Ronald Reagan and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas at the White House on July 26, 1988.

House Minority Leader Bob Michel (right) shares a laugh with President Ronald Reagan and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas at the White House on July 26, 1988. | AP Photo

“I think of Bob as the gold standard for public service … The other part of it was the respect he had for friend or foe,” said former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who worked for Michel as a House staffer before succeeding him in Congress in 1995. “Bob always had respect for everyone and treated everyone respectfully. And as a mentor to many of us, what we learned was, respecting people’s point of view even when you don’t agree with it, really is an important lesson in life.”

For years after, Democrats and Republicans alike would bemoan the fact that “this place isn’t the same since Bob Michel left.” But most often they would get up the next morning and undercut one another, as if addicted to the often destructive style promoted by Gingrich in his rise to become House Speaker.

Without doubt, the growing divisions in the country — not just Gingrich — contributed to the breakdown in Congress. And inside the GOP the seeds were already sown before Michel took over as leader in 1980, Just look at the speedy departure of his unhappy predecessor as minority leader, the late John Rhodes of Arizona.

But the Michel-Gingrich transition in 1994 was stark and it captured a larger generational shift in Congress away from World War II vets like Michel who had seen real ground combat and were more willing to look beyond party lines.

By comparison, their successors, younger, more flamboyant men like Gingrich, had largely sidestepped their generation’s war in Vietnam but gave no quarter when it came to political fighting.

“Michel represented a different generation in public life,” said Mann. “He was comfortable being a Republican and conservative, but he was in Congress when it was possible to put together coalitions. The sort of deep and bitter party polarization was building, but it hadn’t taken hold. And in his last days he was the one who was resisting most what Newt Gingrich was pursuing.”

“Newt used the desire to break that seemingly permanent Democratic majority as the goal to rise to power and play a very different game,” Mann said. “It was a perfectly legitimate goal but the way he went about it … greatly exacerbated the level of conflict and animus. Congress hasn’t been the same since.”

Gingrich, traveling outside Washington, expressed “great affection” and respect for Michel in an email to POLITICO. “The Reagan and Bush agendas owed a lot to Bob’s skills and leadership,” Gingrich wrote. And whatever their different styles, Gingrich said he had learned “an immense amount” from his time together with Michel in the House leadership after the Georgian succeeded Dick Cheney as GOP whip in the spring of 1989.

“Bob Michel was a terrific leader who played the cards he was dealt,” Gingrich said. “I was determined to change the game to elect the first House GOP majority in 40 years.

Michel could co-opt [Speaker] O’Neill and Rostenkowski to get a lot done for Reagan. I could never have done that. On the other hand I was prepared to run a national campaign to elect a House GOP majority… Bob was willing to tolerate my forcing the pace in 1993 and he very generously backed me for over a year as we pushed to elect a majority. He could easily have insisted I wait until his retirement and that would have made the Contract campaign impossible.”

As it happened, former President George H.W. Bush, himself a Republican combat veteran of World War II, was caught in the middle of this same struggle in 1990.

Much to the embarrassment of Bush, Gingrich helped derail a bipartisan deficit-reduction bill in October 1990 after months of negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders. Michel stood with Bush, even going against the majority of his party.

President Bill Clinton acknowledges the crowd at an event honoring Rep. Bob Michel on his retirement in September 1994.

President Bill Clinton acknowledges the crowd at an event honoring Rep. Bob Michel on his retirement in September 1994. | AP Photo

Days later, he again bucked the tide and stood with the president and for the bipartisan deal after frantic negotiations patched together revisions. Those included talks between Michel and his old car-mate, Rostenkowski, who was by then chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. The bill was enacted, but for many, the writing was on the wall that Michel’s run as leader was in jeopardy.

Ironically perhaps, Gingrich gives Michel credit now for preventing a bad situation from becoming worse. “There was a chance the White House bitterness at 140 House Republicans would lead to a permanent civil war with [John] Sununu and [Richard] Darman on one side and the young activists on the other,” Gingrich told POLITICO. “Michel acted decisively to bring everyone back together.”

Michel’s life story — almost from another age in America, like his time in Congress — adds to this picture.

“Will it play in Peoria?” is a showbiz expression going back to vaudeville days. Michel not only played but was born in Peoria, his father a French immigrant who worked as a tool-and-die operator and his mother of German ancestry and a house domestic. He went to local public schools, then war in Europe, came home to finish at a local university and soon after was staffing a local congressman whom he would succeed.

In the House, Michel built his political base initially from the Appropriations Committee and in the mid-1970s moved into the GOP whip’s slot vacated by his colleague Rep. Les Arends (R-Ill.). Rhodes’ decision to step down next opened the top Republican job in 1980 and, on balance, Michel was helped then by the election of Reagan and Republican takeover of the Senate.

The House remained the last Democratic fortress in Washington, and if Reagan were to move his legislative program, having a tactician like Michel able to reach across party lines served the new president’s purpose. Michel’s rival, the late Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), the party’s campaign chief and a gifted orator, had more support from the large class of incoming freshmen and younger activists like Gingrich. But the “workhorse” still won on a 103-87 vote.

As leader, Michel frequently enjoyed a “working majority” that first year given the level of Reagan’s popularity and wholesale defections from Southern Democrats. But to win, it was crucial that Michel also hold onto what was then a real moderate wing in the GOP — a bloc of some 20 members often nervous about the impact of Reagan’s economic program.

His success here was striking — both in the budget and tax-cut battles that dominated 1981. But as the political tides began to shift in 1982, the task became more difficult and Michel became a target at home, where he had long enjoyed safe margins. A young Democratic challenger held him to just 52 percent of the vote, and given the Republican losses elsewhere in the same 1982 elections, Michel and Reagan faced a more difficult path ahead.

But if the challenges were greater in these lean years, the same period also showcased how much Reagan needed Michel’s knowledge of House procedure and personal friendships.

A case in point is the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, enacted in the last months of the 98th Congress. The bill entailed a broad set of changes to the federal criminal code long championed by the president. But despite Oval Office meetings, Senate passage and pledges of bipartisan support, it spent months bottled up in the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee.

With time running out, Michel turned the tables when the Appropriations Committee leadership called up a year-end spending package that was so broad in scope it destroyed any germaneness test for what Republicans might seek to add.

Under House rules, however much the majority may limit amendments to its bills, the minority party retains the right to offer what’s called the “motion to recommit” before final passage. These are typically limited in debate and scope because they must be germane to the pending bill. But in this case, Democrats were caught flat-footed when the Republican recommit motion called for adding the whole crime package in a matter of minutes.

The rapid-fire events captured Michel as the activist: summoning his young party agitators to a hasty huddle off the House floor and bluntly telling them to quit talking and take a risk.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said former Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who was assigned the task to offer the motion, while Michel went off to placate old friends on Appropriations who might rightly have resisted giving Lungren, not a member of that committee, a chance to offer the motion.

“We really didn’t know if it would pass, but Bob got us a shot and it did,” Lungren said. “Reagan sent me a letter after.”

Personal relationships — not just parliamentary procedures — were a big part of this success. Michel enjoyed close ties with the ranking Republican on Appropriations, the late Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), an old bull who delighted in addressing his leader on the floor in the softer, French pronunciation of Michel’s name. A political moderate, Conte had little patience for the younger conservatives intruding on his domain, but in this case he gave way for his friend despite opposition from other senior members of the panel..

In much the same way the floor exchanges between Michel and then Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) in those Reagan years are striking. There was a real bluntness, but also an undercurrent of friendship and respect. Little can match them today.

No better example is the morning of June 26, the day after Michel had won a stunning 217-210 House vote that allowed Republicans to set the rules for debate on Reagan’s budget cuts.

This enabled Michel to force a single up-or-down vote on an immensely complicated set of changes and spending cuts in government programs, including minimum Social Security payments. But to his dismay, some Democrats — not O’Neill — had interceded to slow the overnight printing of the Republican bill, and House members woke up to a mishmash of out-of-order pages with handwritten notes in the margins.

Rushing to the floor, Michel called out those Democrats who were responsible. That led to a direct exchange with O’Neill.

“The walls have ears,” O’Neill teased the angry Michel. “It is my understanding that the gentleman just met with people from the White House … who said this is such a mishmash you ought to pull it off the floor. Is that what the gentleman is building up to?”

“I understand the Speaker suffered defeat yesterday and it was a pretty bitter pill to swallow,” Michel shot back.

“Now Bob,” said O’Neill.

“I have not been around here for 25 years and been oblivious of some of the things the speaker has foisted on us over a period of time. I am really sorry,” Michel said.

“The gentleman knows a couple of people were responsible and the rest of us had no knowledge of it,” O’Neill said. “I say let us go ahead to a vote on this as quickly as we possibly can.”

“I appreciate the speaker’s comments,” Michel said. And the bill passed by the end of the day.

Music was always a big part of Michel’s life. His late wife, Corrine, was trained in the piano, and he sang in church and college choirs. And behind the doors of his Capitol office, the barrel-chested lawmaker — never the showman — liked to break into song in a voice he described as bass baritone.

But as a staffer for Michel, LaHood most remembers that baseball and the Chicago Cubs were the great constant on their road trips in the Midwest district.

“We always had to have the Cub game on, be up to date on the Cubs,” LaHood said. “It goes back to when he was a boy in Peoria. And for him to be able, when he was in failing health, to stay up until 2 in the morning watching the Cubs win the World Series, I think that meant as much to him as winning Republican leader or a legislative political battle. Seeing the Cubs win was a lifetime dream, a lifetime aspiration.”

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