About Robert H. Michel
Born in Peoria, Illinois, on March 2, 1923, Robert Henry Michel graduated from Peoria High School, the president of his class, and attended one semester at Bradley University before joining the Army in 1942. Wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, he was discharged in 1946 having received two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and four battle stars.
Michel re-enrolled at Bradley where he met his future wife of 55 years, Corinne Woodruff. After graduating in 1948, Bob sign on as administrative assistant to Congressman Harold H. Velde (R-IL). Upon Velde’s retirement in 1956, Michel won his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
One factor, above all others, defined Bob Michel’s congressional service, his legacy, and his contribution to our nation’s history—Republicans failed to gain the majority in the House during his 38 years in Congress. His party’s status as the minority party accounted for Michel’s early legislative experience, his rise through the leadership ranks of the House Republicans, his leadership style and eventual challenges to that style, and, ultimately, to his retirement in 1995.
Minority status did not preclude political and legislative achievement, however. His central Illinois constituents elected Michel nineteen times to his seat in the House. In turn, his Republican colleagues elected him to a series of leadership posts: president of his freshman class and the only freshman appointed to the Republican Policy Committee, 1957; chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, 1973-1974; Republican Whip, 1975-1981; and the longest-serving minority leader (he preferred to be called Republican Leader) in history, 1981-1995. In late 1993, Michel announced plans to retire and did not seek reelection in 1994. As luck would have it, his party won the House majority that year for the first time since 1952, and Newt Gingrich, not Michel, became Speaker.
Legislatively, Michel first made his mark on the Appropriations Committee, where he served for more than 20 years and led efforts to promote economy in government operations. The real tribute to his skill, however, occurred in 1981 during months of negotiations over President Ronald Reagan’s budget and tax bills. “My most exhilarating days,” Michel recalled years later, “were those during the first Reagan administration. We had only 192 members, but we enacted his program. . . . Now, that was satisfying. You’d go home at night and say, ‘Well, I did the Lord’s work today.’”
Michel may be most revered for something less tangible than reelections and legislative accomplishments. Speaker Tom Foley put it best when Michel announced his plan to retire from the House: “As prevailing political philosophies have changed over the years, Bob Michel remained steadfast in his commitment to consensus in the interest of the nation and the institution of the House of Representatives. His great dignity, his constant professionalism and his instinct for decency and moderation in the face of extremes have always been proof that politics can be an ennobling profession.”
Michel’s career coincided with increasing partisanship and ideological polarization in the House, with major generational and demographic changes in the membership and leadership of the House, with evolving institutional procedures, with profound changes in the balance of power between Congress and the White House, and with mounting public disillusionment with Congress’s capacity to address the challenges facing the nation.
Robert Henry Michel, 93, died February 17, 2017, nearly a dozen years after Corinne. They are survived by three sons, Scott, Bruce, and Robin; and a daughter, Laurie.
Key Dates in the Life and Career of Robert H. Michel
Born March 2 in Peoria, Illinois
Graduated from Peoria High School
Enlisted in the U.S. Army
Wounded at Battle of the Bulge
Discharged as disabled veteran
Enrolled at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois
Graduated from Bradley University
Married Corinne Woodruff
Hired as administrative assistant to Representative Harold H. Velde (R-IL)
Elected to first term in the U.S. House of Representatives
Appointed to House Appropriations Committee
Elected chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee
Elected House Republican Whip
Named deputy floor leader for President Gerald R. Ford at the Republican National Convention
Named floor leader for candidate Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention
Elected House Republican Leader
Led House Republicans to pass the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, overcoming the Democratic majority
Defeated Democratic candidate Douglas Stephens, Michel’s closest reelection bid
Named permanent chairman for the Republican National Convention
Received the Presidential Citizens Medal
Co-sponsored a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use “all necessary means” to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Decided not to run for reelection and to retire from the House at the end of his term
Joined Hogan & Hartson as senior advisor for corporate and government affairs
Received the Congressional Distinguished Service Award
Died February 17 at the age of 93 in suburban Washington, D.C.