BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | FEB 17, 2017
Originally published in The Hill
Shinny! Fudge! Son of a buck! Judas Priest!
When those exclamations echoed through the halls of the second floor of the U.S. Capitol you knew Bob Michel was upset.
He was a man of incredible calm, of combat-tested self-discipline. His Midwestern values prevented him from cursing or speaking ill of his fellow man or breaking his word or violating the bonds of family and friends. He couldn’t even gesture with his middle finger. He would raise three digits and make you read between the lines.
So the outbursts were rare. He found it easy to smile, easy to forgive and he was “awe shucks” humble right up until he, as he would describe it, shuffled off his mortal coil in the early morning of Friday at the age of 93.
Michel lived one of the most incredible lives of any American, not because of luck or happenstance, opportunism or narcissistic ambition like some of his fellow travelers in politics and governance.
He did it the old-fashioned way. He earned it from mowing lawns as a youth to his heroism on the battlefields of Europe in World War II, to his devotion to country in what became a lifetime of public service in the House of Representatives, and his devotion to his family.
The qualities that made him a terrific human being and a great legislator propelled him into national leadership, but ultimately led to his retirement from public service in 1994.
His critics said he was too nice, too accommodating, and not partisan enough. He was a better practitioner of governance than politics. He may have encouraged those perceptions with his favorite pastimes. He was a devoted gardener, who loved music, golf and the Chicago Cubs. I always thought it funny that this politician’s favorite song was Send in the Clowns. Oddly enough, it was only on the golf course that I ever saw him lose his temper.
Michel, however, had guts (he called it intestinal fortitude) far in excess of his detractors. He was measured but not meek. He compromised but never really capitulated. There’s a difference.
Robert Henry Michel (true French pronunciation Michelle) grew up in Peoria, the son of European immigrants, his father French and his mother, German. He learned to speak both French and German, which he used to convince German soldiers to surrender on a battlefield in Belgium.
Michel went to Peoria public schools, then to the Army’s Ninth Infantry Regiment, which landed in Normandy and fought its way through the Battle of the Bulge, where he was severely wounded. He spent months in the hospital and lost most of his hearing.
He came home, was graduated from Bradley University and married Corrine Woodruff, who he met in the choir. He was destined to become a life insurance salesman before Bradley’s president recommended him to Congressman Harold Velde, who needed an administrative aide. Michel took the job and the rest is history.
Michel was one of the unsung heroes of the Reagan revolution. The Reagan agenda, or at least major chunks of it would not have survived had it not been for Michel’s stewardship in the House.
He and his legislative tactician, Bill Pitts, set up a war room to successfully combat Hillarycare, the precursor to Obamacare, and produced Republican health care alternatives shaped and introduced by Congressman Mike Bilirakis.
Michel led on NAFTA and tax reform, defense, criminal justice reform, Social Security and spending cuts.
He took the helm of one of the most dynamic leadership teams in history, the likes of Jack Kemp, future HUD secretary and candidate for Vice President; Dick Cheney, future Defense Secretary and Vice President; Trent Lott, future Senate Majority leader; Lynn Martin, future Labor Secretary; Guy VanderJagt, one of the architects of the eventual Republican majority; Jerry Lewis, future Appropriations Chairman; and Mickey Edwards, future author and scholar, all of whom marched to different drummers.
Also among their ranks were the talented and tenacious young turks, Newt Gingrich, Bob Walker, John Boehner and Vin Weber. Another giant occupied the White House and another, Howard Baker, ran the Senate, followed soon after by another shrinking violet, Bob Dole. There hasn’t been anything like it since.
Michel’s mission throughout the Reagan and Bush years was turning ideas into laws. He was good at it. He knew how to reach consensus with people with whom he disagreed. He knew how to earn trust and keep it.
His most important attribute was his ability to listen. He knew how important it was to keep the ego in check. Michel never worried about who got the credit for what he did or helped get done.
When it came to partisan politics, Michel was a die-hard, dyed in the wool, dead to rights traditional Barry Goldwater conservative Republican. But he lit his partisan way with candles while more and more of his colleagues were using flame-throwers. Personal attacks on adversaries, a practice becoming more popular, just violated his core, made him put his head in his hands. He just couldn’t do it.
Crossing from one century to another, Bob’s personal nature, his political instincts, and his deep devotion to good governance came and went. The current environment was foreign to him.
However, he believed unequivocally in the durability and transcendence of Congress as an institution, as the First Branch of Government, second to none, including the presidency.
I suspect that Bob Michel’s time will come again. It will have to if we are to survive as a great, unique experiment in self-government and a society that is both civil and free.
It will come. It’s just too bad the Leader won’t be here to see it. Such a shame.
Thank God, the Cubs finally won a World Series before Bob went home.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.