Robert H. Michel of Illinois, a conservative Republican and genial politician who served as House minority leader for 14 years — a tenure marked, toward the end, by partisan rancor and intraparty warfare stoked by his firebrand successor, Newt Gingrich — died Feb. 17 at a hospital in Arlington, Va. He was 93.
The cause was pneumonia, said Mike Johnson, his former chief of staff. The former U.S. congressman was a resident of Arlington.
Mr. Michel was minority leader for seven terms, longer than anyone in House history, aided in large part by his courtly, nonconfrontational leadership style. His amiable manner often led to his erroneous labeling as an ideological moderate, although by temperament he was pragmatic in a House that was Democratically controlled for the vast portion of his career.
In Congress from 1957 to 1995, he represented a heavily Republican district that included Peoria. He had spent much of his legislative career opposing Great Society social programs that he saw as precursors of a permanent welfare state. To shape legislation — in his view, reduce its liberal influence — he often reached across the aisle to work with powerful members in the majority party.
He developed clout as an expert on appropriations for health, education and welfare before rising to greater visibility in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon named him chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Amid the fallout from the Watergate political scandal, the job proved a thankless task and the GOP was clobbered in the 1974 elections.
But Mr. Michel, regarded as a master of procedure, remained in the good graces of his colleagues, who elected the congressman minority whip, the second-ranking House Republican leadership post. He set about rebuilding his party’s morale and unity, but with a soft touch. “We try to build a feeling that the tough votes have to be spread around,” he told The Washington Post in 1975. “If I have to, I go to a member and say, ‘Look, we’ve had six tough votes and you haven’t been with us once. You want to be part of the team or not?’ ”
He was elected House minority leader in December 1980, narrowly outpolling Michigan’s Guy Vander Jagt, a flashy orator then serving as the popular chairman of the NRCC.
As minority leader and working with House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and other leaders in the Democratic majority, Mr. Michel was credited with shepherding President Ronald Reagan’s economic agenda through the chamber.
Mr. Michel was instrumental in winning support for cuts to welfare programs, as Reagan had urged. However, Mr. Michel championed and protected other safety-net programs, including cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits.
Mr. Michel was criticized, bitterly and often, by backbenchers in his party for his willingness to compromise with leaders in the Democratic majority, in particular O’Neill, House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington state and the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee’s chairman, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.
He was also blamed for instilling a defeatist mentality in what seemed at the time to be a permanent minority party in the House. According to Time magazine, new GOP members recalled him counseling them: “Every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘Today you’re going to be a loser.’ And after you’re here a while, you’ll start to feel the same way. But don’t let it bother you. You’ll get used to it.”
Gingrich (Ga.), who would succeed him as party leader, had made clear through the 1993-95 congressional term that he intended to challenge Mr. Michel for the top Republican spot.
That threat, combined with President George H.W. Bush’s reelection defeat in 1992, convinced Mr. Michel to retire, despite polls indicating that a Republican surge was coming in 1994 and that Mr. Michel might have been poised to become speaker.
In an unusually frank news conference in 1993, Mr. Michel said that the House had changed, with an increased tolerance for personal attacks and an uptick in the use of social wedge issues to drive Republicans and Democrats even further apart.
Without singling out Gingrich — who often attacked the Democratic-controlled House as “corrupt”and singled out its leaders as almost fascistically power-mad — Mr. Michel criticized some House members for “trashing the institution” and degrading a spirit of “camaraderie.”
“Do I really have the same zest for the job that I once did?” he asked rhetorically. “No!”
At the time of his retirement, Mr. Michel was hailed by President Bill Clinton. “He would never give my party any quarter in a partisan fight,” the president said. But he “would never put his party’s political interest ahead of the national interest.”
The send-off was a collegial end to a sometimes testy relationship between the president and the minority leader.
Tapped to deliver the televised Republican rebuttal to Clinton’s first State of the Union address in early 1993, Mr. Michel said: “After listening to the president tonight, I wonder if you know what the president’s long-range economic strategy is. I don’t — and I must say, I wonder if he does.”
“Remember,” Mr. Michel continued, “when you hear a Democrat call for taxes, do not ask for whom the tax rises — it will rise for you.”
Robert Henry Michel (pronounced MY-kull) was born in Peoria on March 2, 1923. His father, a French immigrant, was a factory worker, and his mother was from Germany. After graduating from public schools, Mr. Michel served in the Army during World War II, participating in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.
As a platoon leader, Mr. Michel was severely wounded in his right arm and leg during a mission to capture a German emplacement along the Ruhr River. He received two Bronze Star Medals and the Purple Heart before being given a disability discharge in 1946.
Despite his wounds, Mr. Michel was known in later life as a skilled baseball pitcher. Several times in the 1960s, he was the winning hurler in the annual contest between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
In 1978, Mr. Michel, who was a burly 5-feet-11 and 220 pounds, was mugged in an alley on the Hill after parking his car behind his home. His assailants stole a gold money clip, $200 in cash and his wristwatch. Mr. Michel, then 55, was repeatedly punched in the face and needed seven stitches to his tongue.
After a hospitalization, Mr. Michel was back at work within a week. A 15-year-old Washington youth was convicted of the assault and robbery that September. Another person believed to be involved was never apprehended.
In 1948, Mr. Michel graduated from Bradley University in Peoria. That same year, he married Corinne Woodruff, a fellow Bradley student. She died in 2003. Survivors include four children, Scott Michel of Chicago, Robin Michel of San Francisco, Bruce Michel of San Antonio and Laurie Michel of Alexandria, Va.; a sister; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Michel entered politics in 1949 as an administrative aide to his hometown congressman, Rep. Harold H. Velde (R), who became chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee. “He was so engrossed in that thing, everything else was submerged,” Mr. Michel later told the New York Times. “He was so controversial, he always had a primary.”
When Velde declined to run for reelection in 1956, local Republican leaders anointed a successor. But Mr. Michel challenged the candidate in the primary and won handily. He said that, unlike Velde, he tried for many years to steer clear of high-profile, all-consuming jobs to avoid accusations of ignoring constituents in favor of national exposure. “Being elected at 32,” he told the Times, “I didn’t have to step on anybody’s toes. I could take my time.”
In 1994, Clinton awarded Mr. Michel the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
After his retirement from politics, Mr. Michel worked as a lobbyist and adviser in Washington at the law firm Hogan & Hartson (later Hogan Lovells).
Mr. Michel always referred fondly to his first speech as a Republican leader, which he delivered on Dec. 8, 1980, to his Republican colleagues:
“I don’t personally crave the spotlight of public opinion,” Mr. Michel told his colleagues. “My job is to orchestrate your many talents. I know some of you prefer to speak quietly, like woodwinds, and some very loudly, as brass and percussion. But our measure of success is how well we harmonize.”
Adam Bernstein and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.
Read more Washington Post obituaries