Robert Michel, 93, genial GOP leader
NEW YORK — Robert H. Michel, who became the longest-serving Republican leader in the history of the House of Representatives while earning a reputation as a genial conciliator who worked with Democrats to get major legislation passed, died Friday in Arlington, Va. He was 93.
His death, at a hospital there, was confirmed by his son-in-law David Norcross, who said Mr. Michel had had pneumonia and the flu.
Mr. Michel (pronounced MIKE-el), who was from Peoria, Ill., represented his hometown district for 38 years. He lived in Washington at his death.
He led his party as minority leader in the House for 14 years, from 1981 until he retired in 1995, having decided, at 71, not to seek another term in 1994. It was one election too soon.
The ’94 midterm elections produced what was called the Republican Revolution, with the party winning control of the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years, capturing a majority of the nation’s governorships and dealing Bill Clinton a crushing setback two years into his presidency.
Mr. Michel, having announced his retirement, was wistful after Election Day. “I feel like the small boy who ate his spinach and his broccoli but leaves the table before his mom brings the strawberry shortcake,” he told a Republican gathering.
In an interview for this obituary in 2008, Mr. Michel said the “most exhilarating time” in his long years in the House had been when he got President Ronald Reagan’s economic program through the House. Though Republicans had picked up seats on Reagan’s coattails in the 1980 election, they were still 26 short of a majority, and Mr. Michel had to sway enough conservative Democrats to pass tax and spending bills.
Mr. Michel freely called himself the president’s “handmaiden,” but he warned Reagan off measures that he thought could not pass. One was an administration plan in 1985 to aid right-wing counterrevolutionaries trying to oust the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Mr. Michel told the president that the measure was “dead in the water.”
He told a reporter: “I don’t serve a president well by telling him only good news. You get in trouble that way.”
For many years he was known for getting along with Democratic leaders, golfing frequently with Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill of Massachusetts. But younger Republican House members — especially Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the assistant leader, or whip — later began challenging the Democrats constantly and complaining that Mr. Michel was too pliable.
The new breed of Republicans were not much more conservative than Mr. Michel, whose votes were judged 85 percent correct by the American Conservative Union. But they believed that the only way to win control of the House was through confrontation and denunciation.
In 1992, without warning Mr. Michel, Gingrich told reporters that he would run for House Republican leader in two years — a potential faceoff that was averted by Mr. Michel’s retirement.
A triumphant Gingrich went on to become House speaker in the wake of the Republican tide of 1994. Afterward, Mr. Michel was critical of the agenda on which Republicans ran that year, which they called a “Contract With America,” saying that its proposed tax cuts and increases in military spending could deepen the budget deficit.
Mr. Michel did not get along with all Democrats. In particular he had a difficult relationship with Jim Wright, the highly partisan House Speaker from Texas who served from 1987 to 1989, when Gingrich helped force his resignation. But he got along well with O’Neill and with Wright’s successor, Tom Foley of Washington state.
“With Tom and Tip, ye gads, we got along,” Mr. Michel said in the 2008 interview, referring to O’Neill by his nickname. “Sure, we had our doggone partisan differences; I expect that. You can’t be namby-pamby about it. But when push came to shove, or during a real nitty-gritty situation, why, I always knew that I could talk with either one of them on a simply man-to-man basis and no holds barred. And that’s a good feeling to have.”
He added, “I doubt if any of that goes on like it did in my old days.”
Until he joined the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson as an adviser in 1995, Mr. Michel’s entire working life had been spent in the House. He had gone to Washington in 1948 as an assistant to Representative Harold Velde right after graduating from Bradley University in Peoria.
When Velde retired in 1956, Mr. Michel ran for the seat and won. He was elected minority whip in 1975. He was seriously challenged only in 1982, when recession hit Peoria hard. He still won, with 51.6 percent of the vote.
When Clinton presented Mr. Michel with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1994, he lauded him as having “served our nation well, choosing the pragmatic but harder course of conciliation more often than the divisive but easier course of confrontation.”
“In the best sense he is a gentleman legislator,” Clinton said, “who, in spite of the great swings in public opinion from year to year, has remained always true to the Midwestern values he represents so faithfully in the House. He retires at the end of this year, generally regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike as one of the most decent and respected leaders with which any president has had the privilege to work.”
Robert Henry Michel was born in Peoria, the son of a French immigrant who had chosen to change the pronunciation of his surname from mee-SHELL. After attending public schools he enlisted in the Army in 1942, landed at Normandy, was wounded by machine gun fire in Germany, and won two Bronze Stars along with the Purple Heart. He graduated from Bradley University in 1948.
As a congressman, he wore the ribbon designating his Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
In a statement Friday, former President George H.W. Bush called Mr. Michel “a masterful legislator.”
“There were some who thought he was too easygoing with his friends across the aisle,” the statement said, “but no one accused him of being soft after the invasion of Normandy.”
Mr. Michel’s wife of 54 years, the former Corinne Woodruff, whom he met when they sang in the choir at Bradley, died in 2003.
He leaves three sons, Scott, Bruce, and Robin; a daughter, Laurie; a sister, Betty Lou Riggenbach; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
For all his bipartisan instincts, Mr. Michel remained committed to his party, loyally steering the Republican programs of Presidents Reagan and Bush through the House. He especially prized his relationship with Reagan, and kept a picture in his office showing them together.
“His inscription on the picture,” he said in the 2008 interview, “is, ‘Bob, I believe you, I believe you, what’s more important I believe in you.’”