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Robert Henry Michel (pronounced "Michael"; March 2, 1923 – February 17, 2017) was an American Republican Party politician who was a member of the United States House of Representatives for 38 years. He represented central Illinois' 18th congressional district, and was the GOP leader in Congress, serving as Minority Leader for the last 14 years (1981–1995) of a decades-long era of Democratic Party dominance of the House.
Michel also served as Minority Whip for six years (1975–1981). A graduate of Bradley University in Illinois, he was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois.Contents
Michel was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois. He attended Peoria High School. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Bradley University.Military service
When the U.S. entered the Second World War, Michel joined the United States Army and served with the 39th Infantry Regiment as an infantryman in England, France, Belgium, and Germany from February 10, 1943, to January 26, 1946, while also participating in the Invasion of Normandy in 1944. He was wounded by machine gun fire and awarded two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, and four battle stars.Education and early career
After the war ended, Michel attended Bradley University in Peoria, graduating in 1948. From 1949 to 1956, he worked as an administrative assistant to U.S. Representative Harold Velde.Electoral career Michel as Minority Leader
Although Michel was never part of the majority party, during his 38 years in the House he was noted for his bipartisanship in striking bargains. Michel was well respected across the aisle and was good friends with Democrats such as Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.
Michel was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956 and served until his retirement on January 3, 1995. He served as Minority Whip from 94th Congress through the 96th Congress. Michel served from 1959 to 1980 as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, including 12 years as the ranking Republican on the Labor, Health, Education and Welfare Subcommittee. Later, he served as Minority Leader from the 97th Congress through 103rd Congresses.
Michel's toughest re-election was probably during the 1982 midterms, when he was in a tight race due to dissatisfaction over U.S. President Ronald Reagan's economic policies and the 1982 recession. Reagan travelled to Peoria to campaign for him.
Michel stirred a controversy in 1988 when he recalled enjoying and participating in blackface minstrel shows as a young man, and said he missed the shows. He also compared the removal of racially offensive words in songs such as "Ol' Man River" to the Soviet re-writing of history. He later apologized for having given offence, explaining that he was honestly attempting to understand and accept changes in U.S. culture.
In the early 1990s, Newt Gingrich and other young, aggressive conservative congressmen criticized Michel for being too easy-going and not fighting hard enough for Republican goals in the House. Supporters said Michel's practice of socializing with Democrats over a game of golf or cards resulted in deals that moved bills through the legislative process. It was also noted that Michel's voting was nearly as conservative as Gingrich's.
In 1993 Michel gave the rebuttal to President Bill Clinton's first State of the Union speech, criticizing the economic policies of the newly inaugurated president. "The Clinton spin doctors have even given us a new political vocabulary, if you will – investment now means big government spending your tax dollars. Patriotism now means agreeing with the Clinton program. The powerful evocative word, sacrifice, has been reduced to the level of a bumper sticker slogan", he said. He was later criticized for obstructing Clinton's economic stimulus plan.
As a result of Gingrich's rising prominence which gradually attracted support from the caucus, Michel decided not to seek re-election in the 1994 mid-term elections. Had Michel run in the 1994 elections and won, he would have served in a Republican-controlled House for the first time in his entire Congressional career. However the caucus would have likely favored Gingrich over Michel as Speaker of the House, due to Gingrich's central role in the Republican Revolution. In announcing his retirement, Michel complained that some of his fellow congressmen were more interested in picking fights than in passing laws.
Gingrich had a confrontational style, which contrasted sharply with Michel's bipartisanship, but Republicans retained the majority during his term. Gingrich's successor as Speaker, Dennis Hastert, stated his desire to return to Michel's style.
Several years after Michel retired from Congress, his successor, Ray LaHood, praised him. Michel "knew warfare first hand", he said. "That is the reason he never used the macho phrases like 'warfare' and 'take no prisoners' when discussing politics with his staff. To Bob, the harsh, personal rhetoric of ideological warfare had no place in his office, no place in the House, and no place in American politics."Namesakes and honors
On January 18, 1989, outgoing president Ronald Reagan conferred upon him the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian award given, making him the 7th recipient of the honor. On August 8, 1994, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Bill Clinton. He was one of the recipients of the first Congressional Distinguished Service Award in 2000, along with John Rhodes, Louis Stokes, and Don Edwards. This honor was created by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. In 2010, he was given the Schachman Award by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The Society commended him for his post-congressional work in increasing public and congressional support for the National Institutes of Health which contributed to the doubling of the NIH's budget.
During the 1960s Michel was a frequent winning pitcher in the annual Democrats vs. Republicans baseball game, and in 1993, the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call, named him to its Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1994, Michel received the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.
The Bob Michel Bridge, carrying Illinois Route 40 across the Illinois River at Peoria, is named after Robert H. Michel as is the Robert H. Michel Student Center at Bradley University. In the United States Capitol, the second-floor suite of offices occupied by the Speaker were designated the Robert H. Michel Rooms by the House in 1995. At the Capitol Hill Club located adjacent to the Republican National Committee, the cloak room is named for Bob Michel. In Peoria, Illinois, the VA Clinic is named the Bob Michel Community Based Outpatient Clinic. The Robert H. Michel Lifetime Achievement Award is presented by the Creve Coeur Club of Peoria each year at the Club's Washington Day Banquet to recognize community leadership.
Robert H. Michel was inducted as a Laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the Order of Lincoln (the State’s highest honor) by the Governor of Illinois in 1997 in the area of Government.Personal life and death
Michel was married to Corinne Woodruff (Michel) from 1948 until her death in 2003. The couple had four children, Scott, Bruce, Robin, and Laurie.
In 1978, he required hospital treatment after he was robbed and beaten by youths outside his Washington, D.C. home. One perpetrator was caught and convicted in juvenile court of assault on a member of Congress and assault with intent to rob.
Michel died on February 17, 2017, at the age of 93 from pneumonia in Arlington, Virginia.References