WASHINGTON – Former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a GOP lawmaker from Peoria best known for elevating the art of compromise and bipartisanship to get things done in Congress, died early Friday at age 93.
Michel’s brand of politics doesn’t exist much anymore, having given way to a toxic polarization that has plagued this town for years. But his passing, at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., is a reminder of a time when Democrats and Republicans were willing to try to work together.
“A bygone era,” said Ray LaHood, who was Michel’s long-time chief of staff and won Michel’s central Illinois seat when he retired. LaHood told me when we reminisced about Michel on Friday afternoon that he was “the gold standard for good government, good politics.”
LaHood – the Republican who served as Transportation Secretary in the Democratic administration of former President Barack Obama – is Michel’s ideological heir, himself an advocate of using cross-aisle civility to produce legislative results.
“Lots of important issues were resolved in a bi-partisan way with compromise. Bob never thought the word compromise was a bad word. He never thought of the idea of bi-partisanship as a bad concept,” LaHood said.
Robert Henry Michel was born in Peoria on March 2, 1923, and raised there, enlisting in the Army during World War II, after a semester at his hometown Bradley University. He landed in Normandy on the fourth day of the D-Day battles, returning to Bradley U. after the war.
Michel was first elected to Congress in 1956. His fellow House Republicans tapped him to be their leader beginning in 1981, as President Ronald Reagan was starting his first term.
Michel would go on to be the longest-serving GOP leader in the House, forging a close relationship with then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. Michel developed a bond with the Chicago Democrat during their frequent drives together between Washington and Illinois.
With Reagan in the White House and Democrats controlling the House, Michel “worked hand-in-glove with a Democratic Congress to push through a lot of Reagan’s legislation, which could not have been done if Bob did not so many friends on the Democratic side of the aisle,” LaHood told me.
Michel’s last election was in 1992. He left the House after Republicans won the chamber in 1994 for the first time in four decades. The new GOP leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich, would usher in the tumultuous period, which we are still in, where compromise is devalued and in some quarters even disdained.
When Reagan presented Michel with the Presidential Citizens Medal on Jan. 18, 1989, he praised Michel for passing “some of the most revolutionary and wide-ranging legislation of the postwar era.”
Michel wrapped up his career under Bill Clinton, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Aug. 8, 1994, during Michel’s final months in Congress.
“As minority leader in the House for the last 13 years, he has served his party well, but he has also served our nation well, choosing the pragmatic but harder course of conciliation more often than the divisive but easier course of confrontation,” Clinton said.
“In the best sense he is a gentleman legislator 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.”
Springfield is as afflicted as Washington when it comes to polarized politics.
Michel’s death vividly reminded lawmakers there was a time when government worked for the people who put them in power.
Gov. Bruce Rauner said Michel was “best known for his bipartisan style and working cooperatively with Democrats and Republicans alike, he was beloved by all.”
Rep. Randy Hultgren R-Ill., noted Michel “defined public service and bipartisanship.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos D-Ill., whose district takes in part of Peoria, said Michel “proved that if Democrats and Republicans are willing to reach across the aisle and work together, then we can achieve great things for the people we serve.”
Michel’s legacy is that path of compromise he paved as a leader.
Said LaHood, Michel got things doing by showing “dignity and respect for all the members and for the process.”