By Ray Smock
Robert H. Michel of Illinois who died this week at the age of 93 was the Republican Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1995 and served a total of 38 years in the House, retiring in 1995. Bob’s entire career in the House was as a member of the minority party during the long ascendancy of the Democrats that lasted forty years. It was bittersweet for him to announce his retirement in 1994, when the election that year resulted in the Republicans gaining control of the House. By then, however, Newt Gingrich was on the rise and he and the new Republicans that rode to victory that year had a completely different style of militant leadership. Those of us who witnessed the “Gingrich Revolution” could not help but think that Bob Michel would have a difficult time with the new style of leadership had he remained in the House.
Bob Michel knew that compromise was the art of politics and he found ways to work with the Democratic majority. The Democratic leaders he worked with were not his enemies; they were his political opponents. He and Speaker Tip O’Neill were good friends. His skill as a parliamentarian and leader was a key factor in the success of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The House in the 1980s, while Democratic in number, always had a group of about 30 members who, on any given issue were just as likely to vote with the Republicans as not. Speaker Tip O’Neill tried to hold his members together while Bob Michel tried to woo them over to his side, often with great success.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Bob Michel the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.