At the Former Members of Congress gala in Washington DC in 2010, former House Republican Leader and former 38-year Rep. Bob Michel , R-Ill., was introduced and greeted with a standing ovation.
But at my table, only eight of the ten guests stood. Two others remained in their seats and offered only perfunctory applause.
One of them, a former U.S. Representative, later explained that "I never served with Mr. Michel. I always heard he was a real nice guy. But I also always heard he never really took on the Democrats and was quite comfortable with being in the minority.
"When someone who is the leader of your party accepts being in the minority, that’s someone I can’t stand up for."
When the news came Friday afternoon that Michel died at 93, that was the general response among the Republicans for whom he served as House leader from 1980-94: that the son of French and German immigrants who loved to lead sing-a-longs at Washington’s Capitol Hill Club was as nice a congressman who ever served. But his convivial nature with Democrats sent a strong signal the GOP would remain a minority party in the House for a long time.
A decorated U.S. Army veteran in World War II and graduate of Bradley University in Illinios, the young Michel quickly became a "man of the House" in Washington DC.
After serving as top aide to Rep. Harold Velde, R.-Ill, he won the Peoria-based House seat at age 32 in 1956 when Velde retired.
In the days before House Members were provided tax-funded flights home to their district, Michel shared the driving for weekend rides to Illinois with Democratic Rep. (and future House Ways and Means Committee Chairman) Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago.
As House GOP Whip and later Leader in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Michel frequently golfed with then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill — a partisan Democrat from Massachusetts with a heavy-handed style of getting what he wanted in a House firmly in Democratic hands.
Michel’s reluctance to denounce O’Neill and the Democratic leadership was a sore spot for younger, conservative lawmakers such as Reps. Newt Gingrich of Georgia or Bob Bauman of Maryland. Using the rules of the House, they wanted confrontation with the Democratic majority over issues ranging from the Kemp-Roth Act to lower income tax rates to aid to the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua.
Ronald Reagan’s landslide election to the Presidency helped elect 53 new GOP House members and raised Republican ranks in the House to 192. The post of minority leader in the House was open and then-Whip Michel squared off against National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., who promised a more aggressive stance in dealing with the Democrats.
"I voted for Guy because I felt Republicans had been in the minority too long and the combative conservatism championed by Gingrich and Bauman was getting traction," former Rep. Hal Daub, R.-Neb., one of the 46 freshman to back Vander Jagt over Michel, recalled.
"But it wasn’t enough to stop the Washington lobbyists, many of whom were former congressmen who liked Bob Michel’s facility for compromise and getting a few bones for the Republicans."
It was a poignant irony of history that in 1994, as Republicans were winning their first majority in the House in four decades, Michel was retiring as minority leader and as congressman from his Peoria-based district.
Instead of a "Speaker Michel," House GOP Whip Newt Gingrich would wield the gavel and the Republican "Class of ‘94" would be known as the "Gingrich class." Political combat with the Democrats would be the order of the day and the growing number of conservative House Republicans who are backed by the "tea party" make a Michel as Republican leader out of the question.
In Michel’s old district, he was succeeded in Congress by his top aide Ray LaHood. LaHood also championed bipartisanship and went on to serve as Barack Obama’s secretary of transportation. Today, the district is represented by Rep. Daryn LaHood, Ray’s son but a stalwart conservative who voted against raising the debt limit and who bristles at comparisons to his father and Michel.
Of the sad fact that he would not be speaker nor serve in the majority for the first time in his House career, Michel said that he felt "like a small boy who has dutifully eaten his spinach and broccoli but who leaves the dinner table before mom brings in the strawberry shortcake."
As old friends and colleagues mourned Bob Michel, they frequently recalled President Nixon’s words when the Illinoisan retired from the House: "Bob had many opponents, but no enemies."
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