Bob Michel, the former Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, passed away February 17, a few days short of his 94th birthday.
House Republicans were in the minority for the entire 38 years of Michel's career, and in some people's eyes his tenure was defined by it: Newt Gingrich, whose political maneuvers essentially forced Michel into retirement in 1994, saw his behavior as minority leader as too accommodating.
But that's a facile dismissal of Michel's performance. Given the state of the party and the the mood of the country during his tenure, no amount of obstinacy or aggression was going to deliver a GOP majority in Congress. Until Ronald Reagan won in 1980 the party's nominees during Michel's tenure consisted of Richard Nixon (three times), Barry Goldwater, and a wounded Gerald Ford. Combine these candidates with a somnolent party apparatus and a congressional map drawn by Democrats in most states, and the result was a virtually unassailable Democratic congressional majority.
When Michel became the minority leader in 1981, the Republicans in Congress managed to achieve several victories with Ronald Reagan, including passing the Kemp-Roth tax cuts and ushering in a military build-up that ultimately helped to bring down the Soviet Union.
Michel also played an understated but important role in the bipartisan tax reform of 1986. His close relationship with fellow Illinois representative Dan Rostenkowski — the two would carpool back and forth to their home state for congressional recesses — helped him get the Ways and Means chairman on board with Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Packwood's tax plan.
The legislative achievements during the Reagan and early Bush administrations in the face of a House controlled by Democrats are difficult to comprehend in this day. While it's true that things are much more partisan these days, Michel deserves credit for navigating through that environment with an understated deftness.
Michel probably left the political stage at the right time. He wasn't the guy for a political environment that eschews bipartisan cooperation, and punching Democrats on the nightly news on a regular basis would have pained him.
Michel's notoriety in our shared hometown of Peoria went beyond his tenure in Congress. He made his name around town first as an athlete, and he planned on playing baseball at Bradley University until World War II intervened. He fought in Normandy in the D-Day campaign, was wounded by machine gun fire later in the war, and received several decorations for valor.
He was also known for his penchant for singing. At constituent meetings and charity events where he held forth, he had an ironclad rule: If he spoke, he would conclude by leading those assembled in a few songs. These were usually "America the Beautiful" or "This Land Is Your Land", but for the charities he would pull out "Amazing Grace" or "Rock of Ages".
A lot of people saw it as an antiquated and maybe even slightly painful custom, but it was a political masterstroke and a manifestation of his basic sensibility.
Fewer people go to church these days — just about the last place where people sing together — and there are fewer songs we all have in common. But singing together bonds people, and in a world of fraying ties, holding hands and singing a couple of songs with 100 strangers tends to create good feelings — both for the guy leading the song as well as the rest of the people singing.
About a decade ago, some friends back home played a round of golf on a sweltering Fourth of July. They loaded their cart with water and beers and took copious breaks to stay hydrated.
While finishing the last of their provisions on an overlook beyond the 18th green, they greeted the party playing behind them, which happened to include Bob Michel — who had walked the course carrying his clubs and without a shirt, which I hasten to add isn't especially eccentric in central Illinois.
My friends were a little concerned for his health — he was red all over and had the beginnings of a nice sunburn on his back, and he had just done something none of them, 40 years younger than him, could have done. They offered him some water and asked if he was okay.
He refused the water but helped himself to one of their beers. "A little hot weather doesn't bother me," he told them. "I've been through worse things." Michel and my friends toasted to Independence Day, he quickly drained his beer, and then he went on his way, singing a song.