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Bob Michel, Illinois Republican leader skilled at compromise, dies at age 93

Chicago Tribune logoChicago Tribune 2/17/2017 Will Lester
FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 29, 2013, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. A former aide says Michel has died at age 93. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) © The Associated Press FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 29, 2013, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. A former aide says Michel has died at age 93. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Bob Michel, an affable Illinois congressman who served as leader of the Republican House minority for 14 years and was skilled at seeking compromise critical in getting many initiatives of two Republican presidents through Congress, died Friday at 93.

Michel had been ill for some time and died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., said former Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., his chef of staff for 12 years. LaHood went on to succeed him in Congress.

"I really consider him the gold standard of public service," LaHood said. "His death is an end of an era, and that was an era of bipartisanship when people worked across party lines to solve big problems."

LaHood said he stayed in close touch with Michel in recent years and his former boss had been in and out of the hospital recently. "It's a blessing," LaHood said of his passing. "He'd been in poor health for some time."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who knew Michel for 35 years, said in a statement: "Every politician alive should pray that, like Bob Michel, the last words said of him would be 'the face of decency and public service.' " The two, for a time, represented neighboring congressional districts Downstate.

Michel's skill at seeking compromise with the Democrats was critical in helping Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush pursue their agendas during their presidential terms.

Michel served 19 terms in the GOP minority and retired one election too soon to be part of the GOP House majority that swept into power in 1994. He stood on the sidelines as Newt Gingrich of Georgia took the role of House speaker. Gingrich praised Michel that day but had considered him too pliable and conciliatory with the Democrats while he was Republican leader. But year after year, Michel had been faced with cutting deals with the Democratic majority. He admitted at a GOP fundraiser in 1994 that it was bittersweet to leave office just before Republicans took control of the House.

"There are times when I feel like a small boy who has dutifully eaten his spinach and broccoli but who leaves the dinner table before mom brings in the strawberry shortcake," Michel told a crowd of Republicans. In one of the more ironic developments at the Capitol, the offices of the House speaker were dedicated to Michel and called the Robert H. Michel Rooms.

The arrival of Gingrich "marked the end of an era of civility in Congress," Durbin said. "It has never been the same since."

The current House speaker who occupies those offices, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement, "What a life well-lived by this great and gracious man. Today the members of the House - past and present - mourn with the family and friends of our former colleague and leader."

Michel had announced in late 1993 that he would not seek another term, citing lost power under a Democratic administration and a new class of lawmakers making their careers by "trashing the institution." In an interview after the 1994 election, Michel criticized the GOP's "Contract With America," saying its tax-cutting and defense spending provisions could actually worsen the budget deficit.

Throughout his service, Michel was seen as a gentleman who considered many Democrats and Republicans among his friends.

"He had many opponents, but no enemies," former President Richard Nixon said in taped remarks to a crowd of Republicans paying tribute near the end of Michel's time in Congress.

And that was a big factor in his leadership style. Michel once said: "Ideological activists believe they know the truth and they don't want to negotiate or compromise or even talk about compromise. But in the House the ability to strike a wise compromise is an essential part of leadership."

In 1989, Michel indicated that always being in the minority was taking its toll. "Those who have been kings of the hill for so long may forget that majority status is not a divine right," he said of the ruling Democrats. At the same time, Gingrich rose to the No. 2 minority position, signaling a more combative approach in dealing with the Democrats.

And Michel warned Republicans not to let their newfound power corrupt them.

"I just hope it doesn't go to our newly elected leaders' heads," he said.

Michel came from a district that included Peoria and had three congressmen over 60 years - Everett Dirksen, Harold Velde and Michel, who worked as an aide to Velde before being elected to the seat. Republicans looked as though they might claim the majority in 1982, but a public debate over the question of Social Security cuts led to Democratic gains in that election. Michel held Republicans in the House together and was able to provide critical help to Republican presidents and their initiatives.

Robert Michel was born in Peoria on March 2, 1923. His father, Charles, emigrated from France, and his mother, Anna, was the daughter of German immigrants, a former aide to Michel said.

During World War II, he served in Europe and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. In 1949, he served as a congressional aide to Velde, and in 1956 he was elected to the House, winning re-election 18 more times.

Michel had an easygoing style. He met his wife at Bradley University, where he sang in the chorus. Michel was known for his singing voice and on occasion would serenade his congressional colleagues.

After leaving Congress, Michel joined a lobbying firm and worked successfully to double the funding for the National Institutes of Health. Michel and his wife, Corinne, who died in 2003, had four children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

At a presentation of a congressional distinguished service award, Michel recalled a warning from his parents about entering politics.

"I decided upon embarking upon a career in politics without the blessing of my parents," Michel recalled. "I remember dad and mother telling me, why would you want to get involved in this dirty, rotten, nasty game of politics? And I had to respond to my mom and dad, 'Folks, you've taught me the difference between right and wrong.' "

He is survived by four children: Scott, Bruce, Laurie and Robin.

Tribune reporter Katherine Skiba contributed.

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