Legacies Are Honored More with Deeds Than Words


The Chamber of the US House of Representatives was practically empty. It was Monday.

The House was in session, however, for “special orders,” a time when Members are recognized to talk about anything on their mind and invite other members to join them. It was this procedure rebellious Republicans used a quarter century ago to turn deadly boredom into live political theater in their campaign to take control of the Congress from Democrats.

On this Monday, Congressman Darin LaHood of Illinois was hosting a special order to memorialize a predecessor, Bob Michel, who represented Central Illinois for 38 years before retiring in 1994.

Bob died on February 17, 2017. He was 93.

LaHood put a nice photo of Bob on an easel and recalled the Leader’s extraordinary life and career, from a wounded and decorated infantryman in World War II, to more than 40 years in Congress as a staffer, Member and leader; a devoted husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather. It was all there.

A few other members of the Illinois delegation also spoke.

Then stood Steny Hoyer, the graying great Dane of the Chamber, Maryland Democrat, the House Minority Whip–number two job in leadership–and just about one year shy of serving in Congress as long as Michel.

Hoyer first ran for Congress in 1981 in a special election to replace the legendary Gladys Noon Spellman, who had lapsed into a coma after heart failure in 1980 but was still re-elected that year. The seat was declared vacant in 1981 and Hoyer jumped into a seven-person Democratic primary.

Hoyer was campaigning for the nomination one night at a church supper in Cheverly, a little hamlet in Prince George’s County. He approached a group of dinner guests and in a blunt but honest Hoyeresque way asked if there were any Democrats at the table. “No,” came the reply. “Do you mind if I move on then?” Hoyer asked. No, came the reply. Hoyer didn’t know it but his brief exchange was with the late Ralph Vinovich, chief of staff to the new House Republican Leader, Bob Michel.

Now 26 years later, Hoyer stood at the Democratic podium on the Floor: “I rise to honor one of the most decent, patriotic Americans with whom I have ever served,” he said. “….what Bob Michel represented…was the best of us…”

“When we lost the majority in 1994,” Hoyer continued, “I lamented the fact that Bob Michel did not become the Speaker of the House…America would be a more civil place today and this body would be a more collegial body…the House would be a better House if we followed the example of Bob Michel.”

Hoyer has a lot of company in his reverence for Michel. Since his death, Michel has been showered with accolades, and will be again at a memorial service in Statuary Hall. One headline called him “the face of decency and public service…” Former colleagues said he was a “true gentleman,” a credit to the House. Several said “we need more Bob Michels.” He was “one of the heroes in Congress…the kind we need so desperately today….a role model of statesmanship, integrity, and respect for others….” Michel “made us all want to work in common purpose.”

The tributes do not exaggerate. Michel had his faults, but he was an exemplary human being, an effective and productive lawmaker, an honest broker, and a courageous and respected leader. He was the embodiment of the American character, as one admirer said, “the gold standard” of public service.

The words of praise will surely be printed, nicely bound, and put on a shelf at the Dirksen Center in Pekin, IL, where his papers are housed.

The words, however, will not do his life justice, honor his legacy, or perpetuate it.

Only deeds will.

Hoyer would be the first to tell you that it is good to lament his loss, but better to give his legacy real meaning and purpose, using Michel as a role model to help restore the spent public trust in Congress so critical to governance. It would be better if those in public life did not succumb to the siren sounds of job security and the primitive instincts of ideological and partisan purity. It would be better if legislators reached across the aisle and across the Capitol, surveyed for common ground and built upon it. In other words it would be better if they talked the talk and then walked the walk.

Mohandas Ghandi, a profound spiritual, social and political leader reminded us, “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

The reality, however, is that it is easier not to govern than to do so, and it is easier to create a perception of progress than to actually make it. It is more comfortable living in a cocoon than braving the battering winds and hot sun of political responsibility, and it is easier to make a fist than to extend an open hand. Confrontation too easily trumps civility.

The historic functions of government are broken. The compact between the government and those it serves is shattered. Politicians with opposing viewpoints can barely look at each other. The vitriol is ugly and personal. There are plenty of excuses for it, but no explanations that justify it.

Ultimately our democratic Republic will not survive without the trust of those it serves.

The country could use more Bob Michels in public service, the doers, the legislators committed to bringing about change, not just talking about it; the humble workhorses, not the boastful showhorses; those willing to navigate harsh realities and shrink partisan divides, to find good solutions, shape them into legislation and see them through to a lasting conclusion.

Michel was a classic American colloquialism. I can hear him now: ‘Shinny folks, it’s not that hard. Just get up off your keister and get it done, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.’

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.