Callista and I have great affection and respect for Bob Michel, and the news of his passing at age 93 brought back a lot of memories. He was a great colleague, mentor, and friend.
I learned an immense amount from Bob in our 16 years serving together – especially during the five years I served as whip while he was leader. Bob taught me lesson after lesson about leading people in a legislative environment.
He was always a citizen first and a politician second. And Bob, like Senator Bob Dole, represented what Tom Brokaw called "the Greatest Generation."
Both grew up with solid middle American values. Both took patriotism and hard work for granted. Both served in the Army in Europe. Both were wounded. Both overcame their wounds and went on to serve in public office.
We are fortunate to still have Senator Dole with us. I am sure he joins in reflecting on what a remarkable citizen leader Bob Michel was.
After Michel fought the Axis powers in Europe – earning two Bronze stars, a Purple Heart, and four Battle Stars – he came home to Peoria, Illinois. There, he graduated from Bradley University and married his lifetime love, Corinne Woodruff. Both loved music (Bob had a great singing voice, and Corinne was a talented pianist). They had four children and remain a close-knit family.
Bob was also a fan of the Chicago Cubs. I am glad he got to see them break their “curse” and win the World Series last year. I’m told Bob watched every game with rapt attention.
After overcoming the wounds he suffered in World War II, Bob continued his life of service to America. He came to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1949 as an assistant to Congressman Harold Velde. In 1957 Bob replaced Velde and served for 38 years – including six as Republican whip and 14 as minority leader. He was the longest serving minority leader in American history.
Bob used to tell those of us in Congress great stories about the lessons he learned serving as bartender for private sessions with Senator Everett Dirksen and long-time Republican Whip Congressman Les Arends, both of Illinois. He left deep impressions on all who worked with him.
Former Congressman Bob Walker, who was my close ally in working for a House Republican majority, caught the essence of Bob Michel in a note he wrote to Bob's family, which he has allowed me to quote:
"So sorry for your loss. But in a larger sense, it is truly a loss to all of us and to the nation. For all 50 years that I was on the Hill and working with the Hill, Bob Michel was a giant and an inspiration. Throughout his career and in his retirement, he was the shining example of a legislator's legislator. No one was more respected by all of his colleagues for his leadership, his integrity, his courage and his sense of principle. Barb and I truly mourn with you on the loss of a great man and great American."
Bob Michel became minority leader three years after I arrived in Congress in 1978. As Michael Barone noted in the Reagan years, Bob was possibly the most effective minority leader in history.
The passage of the Reagan and Bush agendas owed a lot to Bob's skills and leadership – and his ability to successfully play the hand he was dealt. You can see that in the way he held the House GOP and the Bush administration together when the 1990 tax increase fight threatened to spin out of control. He could also work with Tip O'Neill and Dan Rostenkowski to get a lot done for Reagan. I could never have done that.
On the other hand, I was prepared to run a national campaign to elect a House GOP majority for the first time in 40 years. Bob was willing to tolerate my forcing the pace in 1993, and he very generously backed me for over a year as we pushed to elect a majority. He could easily have insisted I wait until his retirement, but that would have made the Contract with America campaign impossible.
Bob was deeply devoted to his family and his wife Corinne, and her passing in 2003 left a sadness that nearly equaled their intense partnership and happiness. Callista and I offer our thoughts and prayers to the Michel family.
Bob’s was a life worth living and an inspirational model for us all.