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In the Shadow of Watergate: Bob Michel Becomes a Congressional Leader

© Frank H. Mackaman, The Dirksen Congressional Center

NOTE: The following article draws upon the Robert H. Michel Papers to describe his first contest for a formal leadership post in the House of Representatives, the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee, in 1973.

The 8,000-word essay is divided into the following sections:

Introducing Bob Michel
The National Republican Congressional Committee
The Leadership Campaign Begins
On the Job in the Shadow of Watergate
Prelude to November 1974
The 1974 Congressional Elections

Robert H. Michel, a Republican from Peoria, Illinois, who represented the 18th district in Congress for more than 35 years, has a peculiar distinction. No one in the history of the country ever served longer in the minority party in Congress. For the last 14 years of his service, Michel also led his beleaguered Republican troops in the House of Representatives, the longest tenure ever for a minority leader.

When Michel chose not to run for re-election in 1994, his retirement marked the end of an era. In an electoral surprise of historic proportions, Republicans won a majority of House seats for the first time in forty years. The long-awaited victory came too late for Michel, however, who might have been elected Speaker of the House. Michel's retirement signaled a new style of leadership for House Republicans, too. "Bob came out of the same flatlands and corn fields of Illinois as I did," fellow House member (and future Speaker) Dennis Hastert put it in 1993. "He brought to this place good common sense, congeniality, and certainly a style of leadership that says we listen, we contemplate, we make wise decisions, and we follow through."(1)

Newt Gingrich, who was elected Speaker in 1995, brought a harder edge to the job by replacing Michel's conciliatory style of leadership with an aggressive, uncompromising partisanship. Ray LaHood, who succeeded Michel in the House after serving as his administrative assistant, noted the contrast between the Michel and Gingrich leadership styles when he stated: ". . . [Michel] came to the House every day to do the work of the people, and not to engage in ideological melodramas or political vendettas. . . . 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."(2)

To understand the significance of the transition from old to new, from Michel to Gingrich, requires an answer to this question: "What were the qualities of leadership that accounted for Michel's success and long tenure as Republican Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives?" Although the contextual factors that shaped the congressional environment certainly changed over the years, the way Michel conducted himself in his first attempt to secure a formal leadership position, the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), revealed qualities that would sustain him for the next twenty years: ambition, political skill, hard work, and loyalty to the House of Representatives. His was an approach that suited most House Republicans for two decades before giving way to the hard-charging Gingrich.

Introducing Bob Michel

As Hastert's comments indicate, Bob Michel hailed from the heartland. Born on March 2, 1923, in Peoria, Robert Henry Michel lived his early childhood through the Great Depression. Hard work and sacrifice were nothing new to him, for they were lessons learned from his father, a French-immigrant toolmaker. "When I was a kid, I loved to play baseball, but my dad made me take time away from it to work in the garden," Michel remembered. "He believed that if you wanted to go up the ladder, you had to start with hard work. And he believed that if you wanted to be a leader, you couldn't be a good one by talking all the time - you have to be listening 90 percent of the time."(3)

As a young boy, Michel delivered two morning paper routes and one evening route. He mowed yards for neighbors at 35 cents per yard. He worked in a tailor shop for a dollar a day on Saturdays and in a grocery store. "I bought my own clothes with what I earned and the only condition my father put on my earnings was that I had to put away 10% in a savings account for a rainy day."(4)

Michel graduated from Peoria High School, where he was president of his high school class and active in Young Republicans, and went on to Bradley University in Peoria, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration (with a minor in music) in 1948. His education was interrupted by World War II, in which he served as a combat-infantry enlisted man in England, France, Belgium, and Germany. Wounded by machine-gun fire during the Battle of the Bulge, he was discharged honorably as a disabled veteran with two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, and four Battle Stars.(5)

After Michel graduated from Bradley, he married Corinne Woodruff of Peoria and went to Washington as administrative assistant to then-Congressman Harold Velde at $30 a week, a post he held until 1956. Then Velde retired and Michel ran for the office himself, winning the first of 19 elections. "I don't think my mother and father were in favor of my being in politics," Michel once observed. "We were all sitting around the kitchen table when I told them, and I recall that their feeling was that anyone in politics was corrupt. I told them they had taught me the difference between right and wrong, and I wouldn't stay in politics if I couldn't be honest."(6) In Congress, Michel served on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and as the ranking Republican on the Labor, Health, Education and Welfare and Legislative Appropriations Subcommittees before entering the leadership.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)

The purpose of the NRCC was simple: to elect Republicans to the House, enough to capture the majority. To do so, the NRCC centralized national campaign resources, providing economies of scale for services more effectively delivered from Washington than from individual districts. In the mid-1970s, it sponsored several programs, including direct financial support for incumbents and Republican candidates, political intelligence-gathering in the field, radio and television services, graphic design services, media counseling, and political research.(7)

Despite their key role in congressional elections, the congressional campaign committees have received scant attention from congressional scholars. "Our knowledge of House Republican party structures and how they have developed over time is woefully inadequate," noted Barbara Sinclair in 1990.(8) Subsequent scholarship, however, has described more fully how these committees fit into the leadership structure. Robin Kolodny, the leading scholar of congressional campaign committees, believes that a campaign committee chairmanship "serves as a leadership training ground, a position from which individuals can be evaluated on their capacity to act as a team player, a necessary component for effective formal leadership."(9)

Bob Michel had held other party positions in the House before deciding to run for the NRCC chairmanship in 1973, though none in the formal Republican leadership. In 1957 he was elected president of the Eighty-fifth Club, an organization formed by the twenty-two Republican freshmen members of the 85th Congress. Michel also served as Assistant Regional Whip to Republican Whip Les Arends of IL in the early and mid-1960s, an appointed rather than an elected position. The National Republican Congressional Committee, however, offered more visibility, more responsibility, and more opportunity to move up in the formal Republican leadership in the House.

Bob Michel's ascension through the Republican leadership ranks confirms Kolodny's contention in the main. The NRCC chairmanship tested his organizational and leadership qualities and gave him the chance to demonstrate his aptitude for leading his party. All that could not be known at the outset, however.

The Leadership Campaign Begins

Bob Wilson of California chaired the 23-person group in 1972, having held the post since 1961. In the November 1972 elections, the Republicans had picked up thirteen seats in the House as President Richard Nixon won re-election with 60.8 percent of the vote and 520 out of 537 electoral ballots. Despite their respectable showing, the House Republicans remained in the minority. Michel recalled that 66 House seats had been targeted in 1972 campaign as "ripe for the plucking" by Republicans, but Nixon had shielded Democratic incumbents in those districts for their support of his Vietnam policy. Nixon's position left a bitter taste in Michel's mouth.

In early December that year, while having breakfast in the Longworth House Office Building, Bob Michel, then 49, had a conversation with Congressman Dan Kuykendall of Tennessee and learned unofficially that Wilson did not plan to seek reelection to the committee chairmanship. A few days later, Del Clausen of California repeated the rumor, which prompted Michel to place a call to Wilson to confirm the chairman's intentions. The call went unanswered, so Michel phoned Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader.(10)

Ford had met recently with President Nixon, and the two had discussed the possibility of replacing Wilson. Ford told Michel that in addition to Kuykendall, Barber Conable and Jack Kemp of New York, Clarence Brown of Ohio, and John Rhodes of Arizona were considering a run. The two discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates. The Minority Leader expressed mild surprise at Michel's interest in the chairmanship but did not discourage him. The possibility that the post would open up was appealing enough for Michel to proceed.

Although avoiding anything approaching a public campaign for the job, Michel made some quiet soundings of his own. In this he depended on political intelligence from staffers, particularly Walter Kennedy, the Republican Pair Clerk, rather than Congress members. Kennedy and Michel were long-time friends dating back to their days as administrative assistants to Gordon Canfield of New Jersey and Harold Velde of Illinois respectively. From congressional staffers Michel learned that the two leading candidates, Kuykendall and Brown, would have trouble winning a majority, although it was by no means clear that Michel could put together enough votes to prevail.

"I wrestled with the thought of bucking what seemed to be a pre-ordained sequence of events to come," Michel recalled referring to the front-runners. He knew, though, that if Wilson did indeed step down, "I would surely have to be laying the groundwork . . . . " He talked the matter over with his staff and his wife before deciding that "I would not let it bother me and forget about it, taking the easier route of simply doing my job and not being overly concerned about who should take the [leadership] job."

Circumstances conspired to change his mind. The press began to report that the White House was orchestrating Wilson's removal, much the same way Bob Dole had been eased out as National Chairman of the Republican Party several weeks before. Michel's call to Ford seemed to reinforce the impression. The Congressman resented this "shabby" treatment of Wilson, a feeling shared by many of his House friends, and was determined not to let the White House intrude on the House's prerogative to select its own leaders.

The new Congress convened in January 1973 without any formal leadership contests - Wilson remained at the NRCC for the time being.(11) But Kuykendall and Brown continued to make noises. Several members approached Michel, urging him to run as a compromise candidate. Michel begged off, noting that Les Arends and John Anderson, both of Illinois, had leadership posts. His partisans reassured Michel that would not pose a problem, so, deliberately without fanfare, Michel began counting votes. Kuykendall soon found out and said he would withdraw in favor of Michel, delivering the New York vote and those of several southern states in the process.(12) Michel was also sure he could carry California's 20 votes because of his friendship with John Rousselot, Illinois's 14 for the obvious reason, and, if the vote were secret, even Brown's own state of Ohio. Without too much trouble, Michel could put together nearly 50 percent of the necessary votes.(13)

On the basis of his preliminary count, Bob Michel decided to run for his first leadership post. "Once I made that decision, I made a very systematic approach to each of the members serving on the Congressional Campaign Committee," working his way down from big states to small, leaving freshmen for last. It is an indication of Michel's stealthy approach and political savvy that he saved first-termers for the end - "they would be more inclined to ask questions and talk about the thing with our colleagues and that would tend to get the matter out in the open to an extent where the press would obviously get involved." Michel believed the press would exaggerate the dynamics of the contest, making more of it than warranted and, possibly, drawing in the White House. "I simply felt the best strategy was to keep as low a profile as possible and simply go about very methodically to get those votes committed that would be needed to win, and I didn't intend to lose."

On March 9, 1973, Michel's chief rival for the position, Clarence "Bud" Brown, asked for a meeting. The cordial, hour-long session began with Brown asking Michel point blank if he intended to run. Michel said "yes" and reviewed his activity since December, including his preliminary vote count. He did not relay to Brown what members had said about him, that Brown was "too ambitious," "too egotistical," that he wasn't the one "we could get along with." According to Michel, the meeting ended "with my attempting to tell him in as nice a way as possible that I had the votes [and] there was no way he could win . . . ." Michel did offer an olive branch, promising to name Brown as chairman of the committee's candidate recruitment program, something Brown had already organized.

Brown did not give up. He sent each Republican a detailed plan for winning the House in the 1974 elections. His cover letter included a request for support for the chairmanship of the NRCC. "My 'campaign promise' to you," he wrote, "is that Republican unity and aggressive competition with our Democratic colleagues will be my goal as Chairman . . . ."(14) Michel responded not by sending a broadcast letter himself but by talking to members individually and by sending a personally written note to each of the members serving on the congressional campaign committee "reminding them either of their commitment or something pertinent about our earlier conversation."

Michel was working to neutralize White House interference in the selection, too. By this time, Wilson, who announced his resignation on March 14th, was encouraging Michel, even though they both knew the White House preferred Brown.(15) In early March, Michel met "very privately and off the record" with George Bush, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. In Bush Michel saw a way to set up a backchannel to the White House, and he wanted President Nixon to know that Michel had the leadership race virtually locked up and that no purpose would be served by leaking stories to the press in the attempt to influence the outcome. Bush carried the message to Nixon, and Michel was given to understand "that when the chips were down, the White House would take no position or get themselves further involved in persuading the Members one way or the other."

On March 19th and 20th, the Michel camp checked the prospective vote tally and could count 131 or 132 hard votes, with another 10 or 11 possible, enough to win with a comfortable margin. The election was scheduled for the next day at 9:30 a.m. in the Capitol Hill Club. After an early morning breakfast, Michel "returned to my office and sweated out the result of the election . . ." He did not have to wait long; Silvio Conte of Massachusetts delivered the formal news at 10:30.

Michel did not attend the meeting and later learned that the vote came about in an unorthodox manner. Tradition called for formal nominations of each candidate, and Michel had lined up Conte and John Rousselet to do the honors. Roger Zion of Indiana, a member committed to Michel, gained recognition, however, and placed both Michel's and Brown's names in nomination. After some perfunctory points of order were dispensed with, the secret vote proceeded. Only the two vote tellers knew the precise vote - Michel never did discover his winning margin.

Peoria's congressman conducted his three-month campaign for the chairmanship of the NRCC characteristically. He made his decision to run methodically, after checking with a small group of Congress members, congressional staff, and his wife. Michel avoided the limelight and devoted his time to counting the votes and contacting potential supporters one-on-one. He took steps to control his own destiny by ensuring that the White House did not get involved, protecting the House's prerogatives in the process. He relied on his friendships for political intelligence and votes. He won gracefully, too, careful not to alienate his chief rival while at the same time making his own ambition unmistakable.

On the Job in the Shadow of Watergate

Michel's work as chairman of the NRCC began immediately as did his concern for the impact of the Watergate scandal on the committee's work. He met with President Nixon the next morning, March 22, when they discussed the 1974 congressional elections. The president promised to assist, although he made a special point that he would not campaign for what he called a "turkey," even a Republican turkey. Nixon also insisted that all things political would be handled through George Bush and the Republican National Committee. Michel expressed concern over the potential for White House interference in fundraising for House races, noting that centralized fundraising in George Bush's shop would create resentment among senior House members.(16) In what proved to especially prescient, Michel warned the president that the Watergate affair was becoming an issue "out in the hustings" and had the potential to hurt fundraising.

As early as March 22, of course, Michel could not know how Watergate would damage Republicans running in 1974. Ironically, the very next day, in a breakthrough in the Watergate case, James W. McCord, one of the convicted men in the attempted burglary, admitted in a letter to Judge John Sirica that he and the other six defendants had been under pressure to remain silent in the case. McCord eventually named former chairman of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) John Mitchell as the "overall boss." The specter of Watergate would haunt Michel and the NRCC throughout his term.

Michel soon turned his attention to the internal workings of the NRCC. Wilson left the committee in fragile shape, and Michel worried about the finances. Although it had roughly $700,000 in the bank, NRCC payroll costs totaled $550,000. The committee's main source of income was a spring dinner, whose proceeds were split among three campaign organizations: the NRCC, its Senate counterpart, and the Republican National Committee. Although the dinner usually brought in $1.5 million, it cost up to $700,000 to put on, a figure that appalled Michel. He was also distressed to learn that funds raised by the Booster Club (charged with raising money for new candidates) were deposited in non-interest bearing bank accounts. In meeting with NRCC Executive Director Jack Calkins and staffers Ed Terrill and Ed Terrar, Michel also discovered that the committee lacked a staffing chart or job descriptions for its 36 employees. Over the next three months, Michel would tackle these organizational challenges in customary fashion, taking time to collect data, involve his colleagues and committee staff, and then making the hard decisions.

On March 27, RNC chair George Bush called a "hush, hush" meeting in Minority Leader Gerald Ford's office. Senators Hugh Scott, Robert Griffin, and Bill Brock joined Ford, Michel, and Bush. Watergate dominated the discussion. The group questioned the White House's strategy of invoking executive privilege and complained that congressional Republicans were being placed in an untenable position. It was agreed that a delegation would visit the President in the next few days to tell him, in Michel's words, "very clearly that we were all very concerned, and that somebody better come clean pretty quickly and take the fall, if that's what is necessary."

The White House scandal figured in Michel's first public appearance in his new leadership capacity. On April 2 in New York City, major Republican donors Jeremiah Milbank and George Champion hosted a luncheon at the University Club on West 54th Street. The purpose was to meet with 100 potential underwriters for the annual spring fundraising dinner.(17) Questions about Watergate and the activities of the Committee to Re-elect the President were raised repeatedly. Only about three dozen of the hundred invitees attended, signaling the scandal-related hurdles facing the NRCC in 1973-74.

The first full meeting of the NRCC under Michel's leadership took place on April 5th. Michel announced that Calkins would remain as Executive Director of the organization, that an audit of the committee's accounts would take place, and that Bud Brown had resigned as chairman of candidate recruitment. After disposing of other routine matters, Michel appointed himself and four others to a committee to study the NRCC's staff structure, personnel, and utilization in conjunction with the programs of the committee.(18)

Four days later, Michel attended his first full-fledged congressional leadership meeting. Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott hosted the session in his Capitol Office, reminding Michel of the late Senator Everett Dirksen's meetings in what Dirksen called the "den of persuasion." Those present included Vice President Spiro Agnew; Senators Hugh Scott, Robert Griffin, John Tower, Norris Cotton, Wallace Bennett, and Bill Brock; and Congressmen Ford, Les Arends, John Anderson, John Rhodes, Sam Devine, Mickey Edwards, Barber Conable, and Michel, plus selected staff.

The group went over pending legislation before addressing the more nettlesome problem of poor communications with the White House. Cotton asked the Vice President, "What do we do and how do we get it straightened out?" Agnew replied, "I don't know. It may or may not surprise you, but I just don't know." Agnew's response was such that Michel did not risk dictating his notes of the meeting, "for I certainly wouldn't want any leak of this kind of information on my conscience." Agnew went on to tell the group how difficult a time he had with that "tight ship" and "the two," meaning Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, Nixon's chief White House aides. From Michel's perspective, Agnew used the time "to bare his soul and he did so very quietly, earnestly and candidly. Those present were visibly touched. We all felt his frustration."(19)

As Michel reflected in his notes, "What a time for me to come into the Leadership!"

Michel did not devote his attention to White House matters exclusively. He sent his first communication to his Republican troops in the House on April 13th. He reminded them of the committee's re-election services and announced plans to upgrade media production and Member-promotion programs. He also convened a series of meetings of the subcommittee evaluating committee staffing and attended others dealing with the upcoming election. Watergate surfaced repeatedly. For example, Mel Laird, a former House colleague now Secretary of Defense, reported during a private meeting on the Hill that "he wouldn't trust any telephone line for a really privileged communication in Washington, and all of us should always be very careful."

Many of Michel's leadership responsibilities early in his term dealt with candidate recruitment. Watergate was not the only obstacle to overcome either. NRCC staffer Ed Terrill warned Michel that the Republican National Committee's recruitment efforts were interfering with the NRCC's activities. Terrill held a low opinion of the RNC, complaining that Ken Reitz, who headed the program there, had "almost a complete lack of knowledge of political operations" in targeted states. Terrill stated that the RNC duplicated NRCC operations, hired unqualified people to work in the field, overused polling, and kept the NRCC in the dark about their visits to potential candidates.(20)

In late April the RNC fired Reitz because of his involvement with the troubled CREEP in 1972. Chairman Bush met with Michel and Bill Brock to select a replacement for Reitz. Recalling the 1972 campaign, Michel made the point that "we can't ever again allow our Congressional Campaign Committee to get swallowed up by the National Committee" because the RNC will "put all the eggs in the basket of the Presidency and tell the Congress to go to pot." Bush proposed Ed Mahe as Reitz's replacement. Mahe had worked for the NRCC at one time and was currently director of field operations for the Republican campaign committee in the Senate. Bush proposed him as a way to improve coordination between the national committee and its congressional counterparts.

Michel met with Mahe on Monday, May 7. The meeting did not go particularly well. Although Mahe said all the right things about coordinating efforts, when Michel asked him if the NRCC candidate recruitment effort would have coequal status with the RNC's, Mahe said "no." "It was quite obvious to me," Michel recorded, "that Eddie Mahe was telling me in no uncertain terms that he wasn't going to be putting up with any outside meddling into his activity." Mahe was hired nonetheless. At this point, Michel and Bush decided to fold the NRCC candidate recruitment effort into the RNC's. Ed Terrill moved his office into the RNC building; the RNC agreed to pay for field representatives who would work under Mahe but be supervised by Terrill; and the two groups joined forces to refine their statistical analysis of congressional districts. Both parties reserved the right to terminate the agreement.

Why did Michel surrender NRCC's independence in candidate recruitment especially after his warning to George Bush? He apparently realized that the RNC would run the show anyway and saw compromise as the best way to coordinate efforts.(21) He had faith that Terrill, who would supervise much of the field work, would protect NRCC's interests. The strategy also relieved the NRCC of a meaningful portion of expenses for the upcoming races.

Money was in short supply, too. That Washington Star reported in late April that ticket sales for the May 9 $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner lagged past years by half. Although the three campaign committees that shared the proceeds had hoped to raise $2 million, it now looked as though $1 million would be a stretch, a far cry from the $3 million raised in 1969. In addition to the Watergate scandal, new requirements to disclose the names of donors who contributed more than $100 to a party or candidate may also have dampened ticket sales.(22) One week before the luncheon, Michel learned that ticket sales had garnered only $540,000, with $220,000 of expenses due. Unless something dramatic occurred, the event would raise only $150,000 for the NRCC.(23)

But it was really Watergate that stymied the NRCC's efforts to achieve a Republican victory in 1974. Michel flew to Chicago on April 30 to help spur sales of tickets for the May 9 event. "These substantial givers who always seemed to get tapped and tapped again," Michel noted, "tell us openly that they're simply not going to give any more until either the Watergate affair gets cleaned up or there is a dissolving of the Committee to Reelect the President . . ." Michel concluded. "It continues to be one of the most difficult things I have to answer for."

That same night, President Nixon addressed the nation. Earlier on the 30th, Nixon's Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, his domestic affairs assistant John Ehrlichman, and presidential counsel John Dean III had resigned. Nixon announced the resignations during the telecast but denied knowledge of the Watergate coverup. "Deep down I didn't think it was a very good presentation," Michel wrote in his notes. He allowed that Nixon was under considerable pressure having stated that he only learned about White House involvement a month before on March 23. The resignations of Haldeman and Erhlichman cause "us to breathe some sigh of relief, although we know it's not over yet."

Sensitivity to the Watergate climate showed up in more subtle ways, too. Michel spent several meetings going over the NRCC finances, learning how accounts operated and double-checking to see that the proper reports were filed. Ed Terrar was the staffer responsible for the organization's finances. During one meeting, Michel noted that "It was good to have Ed Terrar say that if called to testify in any kind of proceeding, he would certainly tell the truth and nothing but the truth and that he surely wasn't going to run any risk of perjuring himself in this stage of life." With all the questions that had been raised because of Watergate, CREEP, and campaign expenditure regulations, "I wanted to be absolutely sure everything was squared with the law. . . ."

At 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday, May 9th, Michel and Bill Brock drove to the White House to meet President Nixon and Pat Wilson, the new Finance chairman for the RNC, as they readied for the gala that night. The president seemed quite relaxed even as the discussion turned to the problem of fund-raising, particularly how Watergate was alienating big contributors. "I couldn't help but get the feeling that he was still learning of things that he couldn't conceive of happening in his own Administration," Michel recalled. George Bush pointed out that there were ten lawsuits pending involving the RNC or CREEP, and that legal fees were running some $40,000 per month. Although Nixon stated that the surplus funds held by CREEP should be redistributed to the National Committee, Bush said he didn't think any one of the three fundraising committees wanted any "tainted" money because it would give Democrats a convenient target.

After the May 9th dinner, Michel's attention turned to candidate recruitment and the operations of the NRCC. Michel revealed much about his management style with regard to these matters. In his first meeting of the recruitment committee in mid-May, Michel stressed two themes. First, no publicity would be given to the effort from the national level. Second, "I emphasized and reemphasized the fact that we had to be flexible and that we could set no universal pattern or rules that would apply equally in all cases." Instead of insisting on high-profile promotion and centralized control, Michel allowed regional chairmen to draw up individualized plans for publicity, resource allocation, localized fundraising, and campaign strategizing.(24)

Michel also met personally with potential Republican recruits. Typical was a meeting on May 15 with Diana Hansen, the woman who had run against Patsy Mink in Hawaii in 1972. "She has a lot of energy, young, articulate, and appears to be quite capable," Michel wrote in his notes. "Her problem would appear to be to build a measure of confidence among the so-called establishment in Hawaii, if there is such a thing." She had no significant contributors, no campaign staff, and no fundraising chairman. He did not hold out much hope for her. Nonetheless, his records show a painstaking attention to detail and a willingness to meet with prospective candidates, promising or not.

By August, Michel had restructured the NRCC to his liking in preparation for the 1974 elections. He had almost doubled the committee's size in order to engage more members, share the work, and vest members in electoral success. The committee now numbered 45, representing each state which had Republican representation in the House. The full committee met every two months, the Executive Committee every three or four weeks. Michel added a new element to the committee structure by appointing regional advisory committees to collect political information, assist in candidate recruitment, and act as liaison with state and local party leaders. This change was more evidence of Michel's desire to be inclusive and open in his style. By late summer, the staff of the RNC was organized into five divisions: Finance, Campaign, Art, Administration, and Public Relations. The committee's services encompassed all manner of political support for Republicans.

And Republican candidates in 1974 needed all the help they could get. NRCC Executive Director Calkins estimated there were 32 marginal Republican candidates at risk in 1974. Of these 32, 21 were especially vulnerable freshmen. In contrast, the Democrats emerged from the 1972 elections with only 24 marginal members, of which only eight were freshmen. The Republicans began at a disadvantage, compounded by the historical fact that the party in control of the White House typically lost seats in off-year elections.(25)

Calkins saw the need to play to the party's strength, its incumbents. "The fact is," he wrote, "that with the exception of a drastic redistricting there is absolutely no reason for an incumbent to lose if he is maximizing his incumbency advantages and doing his job properly." In response, Michel directed the NRCC staff to institute what he called an Incumbent Protection Program to ensure that Republican House members took greatest advantage of their incumbency.(26)

The NRCC staff and Michel knew the numbers were against them. Two other negative factors over which they had no control loomed, too: Watergate and the nation's economy. Writing in August 1973, Calkins did not believe that the scandal would directly impact House races, a mistaken view in hindsight. Instead he worried that it might prevent good candidates from running for office in the first place "because they feel that Watergate has damaged the Republican Party and the political process for the foreseeable future." He also acknowledged the harm Watergate had caused fundraising efforts. Normally in late summer of a non-election year the Republican Boosters Club would have a balance of at least $400,000; in 1973 the total stood at $275,000. Fundraising dinners sponsored by the Boosters Club in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Wilmington had been cancelled because of "lack of interest or downright opposition," threatening the committee's ability to finance the fall races.(27)

In the end, though, the NRCC staff believed that the economic situation would drive election results in 1974. If the economy did not improve, "then unquestionably we will lose several seats, incumbency notwithstanding." If any combination of an increased prime rate, more inflation, higher food prices, or more commodity shortages occurred, Calkins believed that the party would have an "extremely difficult time hanging on to anything like 190 House Republican Members."(28)

Once Michel was satisfied with the committee's organization, staffing, and basic financial picture, his records suggest that he let Jack Calkins run the daily operations independently. Calkins would report periodically on candidate recruitment, fundraising, internal staffing matters, and coordination with other campaign groups, but it appears that Michel was able to step back a bit after the summer of 1973, a stance in keeping with his inclination to let good people do their jobs.

The bulk of Michel's remaining work dealt with candidate recruitment. He received evaluations of potential candidates from the field. He delivered the bad news to many of them, particularly those not in targeted races, that they could not count on financial support from the NRCC. He weighed in personally on occasion to persuade a promising prospect to enter the fray. He worked particularly hard to recruit Bobby Richardson, the former Yankee infielder, to run for a seat in South Carolina. Here is an excerpt from Michel's first letter to Richardson in February 1974:

We know from what we have heard from those who know you and the territory well, and the polls that have been taken, you can get the job done if you will simply agree to do it. WE WANT YOU - - - WE NEED YOU - - - AND WE KNOW YOU CAN WIN! And, if your wife needs a little convincing, then maybe she ought to talk to my wife who has put up with this "rat race" for 25 years.

Despite working the phones and his own contacts, though, Michel could not persuade Richardson.(29)

Prelude to November 1974

A series of five special elections beginning in February 1974 provided an early test of Michel's revamped NRCC, but they also illustrated how election outcomes depended not only on help from the committee but also on local circumstance and the unraveling of the Nixon administration.

Pennsylvania conducted the first special election under Michel's tenure on February 5, 1974. The incumbent, Republican John P. Saylor, had held the seat for 24 years before his death in October 1973. The Democrats ran John R. Murtha, a 41-year-old state legislator, veteran of Vietnam, and a strong personal campaigner. His party held an 8,000-voter edge in enrollment, and the AFL-CIO, United Mine Workers, and United Steelworkers of America sponsored an intensive telephone and mail campaign designed to convert the vote in the 12th district into an embarrassment for President Nixon and a warning to Republicans in Congress. Murtha attracted visits from such prominent Democrats as Senators Henry M. Jackson, Edmund S. Muskie, and Walter Mondale. Murtha appealed to voters "to send a message" of disenchantment to the White House.(30)

The Republicans countered with Harry M. Fox. Fox, 49, was, as he put it, "running on a dead man," having served as Saylor's administrative assistant for 24 years. He reminded voters over and over that "John P. and I, side by side," had been delivering the goods for more than two decades. Vice President Ford paid a visit to the district ten days before the election, and Fox's campaign organization was augmented by a team of pros sent by the NRCC and headed by Ed Terrill himself. But ultimately Fox was handicapped by bickering among Republicans lingering from the contest in which he won the nomination.

Murtha won, but by fewer than 250 votes out of more than 120,000 cast. Months later some would see the Pennsylvania result as the beginning of an anti-Republican surge born of Watergate. But considering Murtha's advantages and his narrow margin of victory, the NRCC put on a good showing. As political reporter Jack W. Germond put it, "The victory, if it stands up, will have failed to meet the hopes of the Democrats. And it provided not a shred of evidence to suggest there is a hidden anger in the electorate about Watergate that will surface in November and drive Republicans from the Capitol in droves."(31)

The election on February 18 to replace Gerald Ford in Michigan was more telling, however.(32) The race pitted Robert VanderLaan, the Republican leader of the state Senate and a man who had never lost an election, against Richard VanderVeen, the Democrat and a lawyer with a record of losing elections. The Democrat won, the first time Michigan's 5th district had fallen from Republican hands in sixty-four years. And they had taken the seat of the Vice President!

VanderVeen made the contest into a referendum on Watergate(33) and even took out newspaper ads in which he promised to do his utmost to dislodge Nixon and turn the presidency over to Ford, a political folk hero in the district. Democrats interpreted VanderVeen's victory as a massive uprising of an outraged citizenry casting out the Republicans and turning to Democrats as the best hope for honest government. Speaker of the House Carl Albert opined, "It means that the Democrats are going to sweep the nation this year." Many Republicans went along. The state Republican chairman hung the whole thing on Watergate and called for Nixon's resignation. Washington Post staff writer Lou Cannon said the result "has raised anew the question of whether 'Watergate might destroy the Republican Party.'"(34)

Initially, the NRCC chalked up the defeat to more mundane factors. Republican VanderLaan ran a terribly poor campaign. "The situation can best be capsulized," Calkins reported, "by saying that VanderLaan was a disappointing candidate to work with inasmuch as he had no clearcut lines of responsibilities within his campaign, no campaign manager worthy of the title, and insisted that all major decisions flow through him."(35) The NRCC even assigned an experienced staffer, Charlie Peckham, to supervise the situation, but the candidate refused to listen. The committee also attributed the loss to low voter turnout, a plausible explanation at first blush. Republican voters did indeed stay away from the polls; in the overwhelmingly Republican Ionia County, for example, only 7,000 of the 17,000 voters voted - and the Democrat won by 100 votes. VanderLaan, the Republican, polled barely half as many votes as Ford did in 1970.(36)

These explanations, however, left unanswered the question of why VanderLaan couldn't mobilize a competent staff and why Republicans stayed away from the polls. The NRCC commissioned Market Opinion Research to find the reasons. The study concluded that "Richard VanderVeen's upset victory in the Michigan 5th congressional district was the result of one overriding factor - the voters' desire to rebuke Richard Nixon." Although perceptions of ever-worsening economic problems played a part in voters' dissatisfaction with Nixon, "Watergate was the single most important factor." The study disputed the notion that better turnout would have yielded a different result, or that a more effective campaign organization on the part of Republicans would have changed the outcome. "What small differences that do exist could not be considered, by any stretch of the imagination, major factors in the final election outcome," the report concluded.(37)

The undeniable impact of Watergate undermined Michel's efforts on behalf of Republican candidates throughout his term as chairman. "I just have to agonize over the fate of those who are counting on me and our committee to do the things that would normally be expected to get them re-elected," Michel told Christopher Lydon in an interview for the New York Times. "It's a unique year for us. If this thing [Watergate] goes on and on . . . ., we're looking at the prospect of this whole thing being uppermost in people's minds when they trek to the polls."(38)

The 1974 Congressional Elections

The ultimate test of the NRCC's effectiveness came in November 1974. For Republicans, the elections played out against a somber backdrop. In August, the government reported that, for the second consecutive quarter, the gross national product had fallen. Increasing unemployment and run-away inflation threatened to cripple the economy. Watergate claimed its most significant casualty on August 9 when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, followed by his controversial pardon on September 8. A new campaign finance law signed into effect by President Gerald Ford on October 15 made the rules used for past campaigns obsolete.

In the general election on November 5, Democrats gained 43 seats in the House. Although the party holding the White House usually lost seats in off-year elections, history was small consolation to Republicans. For the most part, the Democratic gains in the House were not marginal seats won by Republicans in 1972 but solid Republican districts despite the NRCC's Incumbency Protection Program. Democrats won four Republican House seats in New Jersey and California, five in Indiana and New York, and three in Michel's home state of Illinois. Their victory was overwhelming. "I remember it so distinctly," Michel recalled in an interview years later, "because the times were so bad that there were 63 congressional districts in the country out of 435 we couldn't even find a Republican candidate to run for Congress. It was that bad. In other words, you gave away 63 seats before you even began."(39)

The dismal result might have been a set back for an aspiring leader under normal circumstances; it was not for Michel. House Republicans generally held Watergate, not the NRCC chairman, responsible for their losses.(40) Only a month after the defeats at the polls, Republicans elected Peoria's congressman to succeed Les Arends as Minority Whip, the second-ranking House Republican leadership post. In that party election, he received 75 votes to 38 for Jerry L. Pettis of California and 22 for John N. Erlenborn of Illinois. Michel continued his leadership climb in 1980 when he replaced John Rhodes as Minority Leader, a post Michel held until his retirement.

Robert H. Michel's first experience as a member of the formal Republican Party leadership in the U.S. House suggests four themes that transcend the balance of his career. Despite his "aw shucks" demeanor and behind-the-scenes style, Michel was ambitious. He did not enter the leadership on a whim; in fact, he had been contemplating the possibility since Everett McKinley Dirksen's death in 1969. Michel viewed Dirksen, whose congressional district Michel represented, as a mentor in politics(41) and seriously considered a run for the Senate to fill Dirksen's seat. As luck would have it, however, Michel had endorsed an opponent of Illinois's Republican governor in the primary and was not appointed to the vacancy. At that point, Michel's thoughts began to turn more toward extended service in the House. He understood that it would be years, if ever, before he could rise to ranking member or chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, so the leadership route held more promise for his ambitions. Despite initial hesitancy about seeking the chairmanship of the NRCC in late 1972, Michel committed wholeheartedly to the race once he saw an opening.

A second factor accounted for Bob Michel's success as a leader. Simply put, he liked politics. From his days as an administrative assistant through his years in the House, Michel enjoyed, even embraced, what he called "the nitty-gritty day to day operation" of the chamber and "gassin' with the Members on the other side of the aisle." "Political debate in a democracy is often robust and harsh," Michel acknowledged, but he prided himself on dealing honestly and nobly in the political arena, decrying the "corrosive effects of the politics of anger. . . ."(42) "I've done enough negotiating to know you don't shake hands with a guy with one hand and knife him with the other."(43) Democrats appreciated Michel's sense of fair play, too. Speaker of the House Thomas Foley once offered this evaluation: "His great dignity, his constant professionalism and his instinct for decency and moderation in the face of extremes has always been proof that politics can be an ennobling profession."(44) In his first race for a leadership post, Michel treated his opponents with respect and refrained from strong-arm tactics to obtain his victory. His was a retail style of politics where one rolled up his sleeves, worked one-on-one, compromised when necessary, and counted on friendships and trust.

Michel was deliberate and hardworking, qualities evident well before 1973-74. Michel was known for doing his homework and mastering a subject before speaking about it. In the run for NRCC chair, Michel showed that same work ethic. He had served the committee for years as a member of the Paul Revere panels, which evolved into the Republican Truth Squads. In 1964, he went into 38 states to promote his party's political and legislative agenda, invaluable preparation for his run in 1973.(45) He plotted his strategy to win the NRCC post carefully and, once installed, paid attention to the operational details of the committee as well as the big picture. He participated actively in recruiting candidates, raising money, and achieving consensus over strategy. "I don't think a run for leader of a Party or any political subdivision or significant position [is possible] in politics without considerable forethought and adequate preparation," Michel wrote.(46)

Yet another key to Michel's staying power was his loyalty to the institution of Congress. This, in turn, engendered a deep sense of pride in the prerogatives of the House. Indeed, it was partly to protect the House against what he viewed as interference from the Nixon White House that Michel campaigned to head up the NRCC. His fondness for the legislative work, and his service on prestigious committees, enhanced his position with his colleagues. Throughout his career, according to Speaker Foley, Michel "remained steadfast in his commitment to consensus in the interest of the nation and the institution of the House of Representatives."(47)

Ironically, the very qualities of character and style that served him so well in 1973-74 became liabilities twenty years later when Newt Gingrich led the so-called "Republican Revolution" that installed him as Speaker and the Republicans as the majority party for the first time in 40 years. By the 1990s, younger Republican House members chafed under Michel's accommodating, relatively low-keyed style. "It's changed," Michel said at the news conference announcing his retirement. Talking about the new breed of legislators, he said, "there's a big generational gap between my style of leadership and my sense of values and my whole thinking processes. . . I did not have to step over anybody [to move up in the leadership]. I didn't have to rub anybody the wrong way."(48)


It is one of those interesting historical footnotes that in October 1973, twenty years before the Republicans gained control of the House and the power to elect the Speaker, Michel received an interview report on a Republican candidate running for the seat held by Democratic incumbent John Flynt from Georgia's 6th district. The candidate's name, Newt Gingrich. "I was very much impressed with him as in individual," the report read, "however, as a candidate I would rate him as fair at this time, but with a little coaching I think he could become a good candidate. It appeared to me that he was not as agressive [sic] or forceful as he should be to make a good candidate. He spoke in a very low voice, barely audible, perhaps he would need some training for political speaking."(49) Gingrich lost his race in 1974, winning his first term four years later.


1. Congressional Record, October 4, 1993, in Robert H. Michel Papers (RHM), Personal Series. Box 3, f. Retirement.
2. "Bob Michel's Leadership Honored," InterBusiness Issues, August 2003, p.4.
3. "Robert H. Michel . . . a Biography," ca. 1984 in Michel Information File, f. Biographical. The Michel Information File was created by the staff of The Dirksen Congressional Center.
4. Michel to Andrea Whitfield, January 30, 1992, in Michel Information File, f. Biographical.
5. "Robert H. Michel," Ralph Nader Congress Project, August 1972, in RHM, Press Series, Box 28, f. Subject, Michel (2).
6. "Robert H. Michel . . . a Biography," ca. 1984 in Michel Information File, f. Biographical.
7. Memorandum, Jack Calkins to Bryce Harlow, August 20, 1973 in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from the Executive Director.
8. Barbara Sinclair, "Congressional Leadership: A Review Essay and a Research Agenda," in John J. Kornacki, ed. Leading Congress: New Styles, New Strategies, (Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1990): 127. Sinclair provides an historical overview of the congressional leadership structure on pages 109-118.
9. Robin Kolodny, "Leadership and the CCCs: The Congressional Campaign Committees as a Training Ground," Paper prepared for delivery at the Midwest Political Science Association's Annual Meeting, April 18-20, 1991, p. 6. Kolodny's Pursuing Majorities: Congressional Campaign Committees in American Politics (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998) is the authoritative treatment in political science of the subject.
10. In early 1973, possibly in March, Michel began to keep a diary of sorts relating to his leadership race. These notes cover the period from December 1972 through May 1973. Unless otherwise noted, Michel's notes are the source of information for this article. See RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Michel Notes (1973).
11. The chair of the NRCC was not selected by the entire Republican Conference at the regular organizing meeting where the four other leaders were selected. Only after the NRCC itself was formed did the group select its chair.
12. Committee members cast weighted votes, so securing New York was a notable accomplishment.
13. "NRCC . . . , January 3, 1973," RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. Election to Chairman.
14. Clarence J. Brown to Harold R. Collier, March 15, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Election to Chairman.
15. "Prelude to Our Race for Leader" in RHM, Press Series. Box 28. f. Michel, R. (1).
16. Michel's concern echoes a point made by political scientist Robin Kolodny that congressional campaign committees were set up to prevent the presidential party from dictating their electoral strategy. See Kolodny, Pursuing Majorities.
17. John T. Calkins to RHM, March 23, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Meetings.
18. "Minutes of Full Meeting of Republican Congressional Committee," April 5, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series. Box 36, f. NRCC. Meetings.
19. Agnew would resign as vice president on October 10, 1973, after pleading "no contest" to a charge of tax evasion.
20. Terrill to RHM, April 18, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36. f. NRCC. Michel Notes (1973).
21. In August, the experiment was working to Michel's satisfaction. See Confidential Memo, Jack Calkins to Bryce Harlow, August 20, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from the Executive Director.
22. Washington Star, April 27, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36. f. NRCC. Michel Notes (1973).
23. A last minute appeal to 10,000 donors paid off in better-than-expected attendance at the May 9th gala. After expenses, the NRCC received about $200,000.
24. Michel to various, April 13, 1973. RHM, Campaigns and Elections Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Candidate Recruitment; Michel to Calkins, April 23, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from Michel.
25. Confidential Memo, Jack Calkins to Bryce Harlow, August 20, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Bryce Harlow had rejoined the White House staff at President Nixon's request and was assigned to keep Nixon posted on Republican activities and the 1974 elections. See Confidential Memo, Calkins to RHM in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from Executive Director.
26. RHM to Calkins, April 23, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC; Memo from Michel and Calkins to RHM, April 19, 1973, and Confidential Memo, Jack Calkins to Bryce Harlow, August 20, 1973, and Calkins to RHM, August 14, 1973, all in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from the Executive Director. Writes Robin Kolodny: "In the minority party, the maintenance of incumbents is crucial to the party's survival; the pursuit of majority status, through the cultivation of challenger or open seat candidates, is an immediate secondary goal." Kolodny, Pursuing Majorities, p. 158.
27. Confidential Memo, Jack Calkins to Bryce Harlow, August 20, 1973, and Calkins to RHM, September 7, 1973, both in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from the Executive Director.
28. Confidential Memo, Jack Calkins to Bryce Harlow, August 20, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Memos from the Executive Director.
29. Michel to Richardson, February 12, 1974 and Richardson to Michel, March 20, 1974 in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Recruiting Committee. Southern Region.
30. Washington Star-News, ca. February 20, 1974, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Pennsylvania.
31. Washington Star-News, ca. February 20, 1974, in RHM Papers, Campaigns & Politics, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Pennsylvania.
32. Ford replaced Spiro Agnew as Nixon's vice president when Agnew resigned on October 10, 1973.
33. This was a smart strategy. In mid-February, a poll in the western Michigan district revealed that the main issue in the special election would be Watergate, named by 43 percent of the respondents, not including responses marked as "anti-Nixon" (14 percent), "get Nixon out," (7 percent), and other similar statements. In contrast, the "economy" was cited by only 3 percent of respondents. See "What Do You Think was the Main Issue in This Campaign," February 18, 1974," in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Michigan.
34. "Michigan Loss Dismays GOP," Washington Post, February 20, 1974, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Michigan.
35. Calkins to Bryce Harlow, March 5, 1974, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Michigan.
36. See Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1974, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Michigan.
37. "Michigan 5th Congressional District," March 1974 in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 37, f. NRCC. Special Elections. Michigan.
38. Interview, New York Times, May 12, 1973, quoted in Current Biography, September 1981, p. 27 in Michel Information File, f. Biographical.
39. Michel Interview, The Observer, January 7, 1987, in RHM, Press Series, Box 28, f. Subject. Michel (1).
40. As Robin Kolodny has observed: "Though a big win can never hurt a CCC chair's career, the electoral outcome is less important than the chair's perceived efforts. This is because members know that CCCs are inherently limited in what they can do to win individual elections." Kolodny, Pursuing Majorities, p. 13.
41. "My real inclination in the early days," Michel recalled, "was to live up to the late Everett Dirksen . . . ." in "Prelude to Our Race for Leader" in RHM, Press Series, Box 28, f. Michel, R. (1).
42. Commencement Address, MacMurray College, May 19, 1993, in "Quotations from Leader Bob," Michel Information File, f. Documents.
43. Peoria Journal Star, August 6, 1987, in in "Quotations from Leader Bob," Michel Information File, f. Documents.
44. Press Release from the Speaker, October 4, 1993, in RHM, Personal Series, Box 3, f. Retirement.
45. "Prelude to Our Race for Leader" in RHM, Press Series, Box 28, f. Michel, R. (1).
46. "Prelude to Our Race for Leader" in RHM, Press Series, Box 28, f. Michel, R. (1).
47. Press Release from the Speaker, October 4, 1993, in RHM, Personal Series, Box 3, f. Retirement.
48. Quoted in David Broder column in the Peoria Journal Star, October 8, 1993.
49. "Candidate Interview," October 19, 1973, in RHM, Campaigns and Politics Series, Box 36, f. NRCC. Recruitment Committee. Southern Region.

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Abraham Lincoln and the Illinois Congressional District Michel Biography In the Shadow of Watergate: Bob Michel Becomes a Congressional Leader Anatomy of a Congressional Leadership Race Michel Leadership Statements Michel Photographs "Quotations from Leader Bob" Michel Papers Collection The Republican Congress: A Manifesto for Change in the House of Representatives A Blueprint for Leadership: Office of the Republican Leader, April 16, 1993 Bob Michel Interviewed about His Career in Congress A Tribute to Congressman Bob Michel