WASHINGTON -- Almost 20 years ago, during a congressional recess early in 1974, a reporter went to Peoria to spend a few days with Rep. Robert Michel. The idea was to find out how voters in a quintessentially Republican district were feeling about the embattled Republican president, Richard M. Nixon.
Michel, already a member of the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, was at that point a staunch defender of Nixon.
But Michel didn't try to sugarcoat it. On the contrary, he allowed the reporter to accompany him to one meeting after another with his constituents. And when it became apparent that voters in this central Illinois district were beginning to face the reality of Nixon's culpability on Watergate, Michel was characteristically straightforward.
After one appearance at a service club when he had been peppered with skeptical questions about Nixon, he turned to the reporter, shrugged and said, "They're not exactly doing the Mexican hat dance when I mention the president's name." Then he shook his head sadly and led the way to the next stop.
This was the core of Bob Michel, the minority leader of the House who is now leaving Congress after 38 years. He was always the most loyal of Republicans but never a politician comfortable with the usual dissembling or blind partisanship.
The conventional wisdom is that the passing of Michel and his likely replacement by Minority Whip Newt Gingrich will bring in an era of more confrontational politics. Michel believed that the minority could be most effective in influencing legislation by dealing with the reality of the opposition's controlling position.
By contrast, Gingrich -- and many other Republicans of his generation in the House -- believe the answer lies in hard-line opposition that feeds red meat to their most conservative partisans. What Gingrich and others of his stamp have not demonstrated, however, is that such an approach wins more seats in the House, produces better legislation or improves Republican prospects in presidential elections.
Michel was by no means lacking his own partisan edge, but he showed it in situations in which he thought his party was being forced into a corner and in dealing with Democrats he believed were trying to grind the minority into the dust. Thus, for example, he managed to get along most of the time with Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, who shared his enthusiasm for a good song late at night, but not with Speaker James Wright, a much more devout partisan.
The retiring leader also had an inordinate fondness for Congress as an institution and, as he said when he announced his retirement, could not understand people coming into the House while "trashing" the institution at every opportunity.
"He's sort of dispirited. It's not fun for Bob anymore," a longtime colleague says. "Every day he comes in and it's a confrontation."
Michel was someone who took great joy in the political world. He loved to sing and play golf and have a few laughs with other politicians, including Democrats with whom he might disagree strongly on most issues. To him, political disagreements were just that -- not situations in which he held the moral high ground and Democrats were automatically beyond the pale. The result was that he has achieved a high level of trust with his colleagues in both parties.
He never made much of a secret of his resistance to the advent of Gingrich into the party leadership four years ago. But, unsurprisingly, he learned to get along with Gingrich and may even have softened the harsh edge of his likely successor. But there have been some classic disagreements between the two -- as, for example, when Michel stuck with President George Bush on the 1990 tax deal while Gingrich led a bloc of angry dissenters from their own party's president.
What has made Bob Michel special, however, has been his personality. He is an ebullient, outgoing man who has enjoyed the world in which he functioned so successfully most of his life without ever becoming self-important. Even after years as a prominent party leader, he always introduced himself to strangers as "Bob Michel from Illinois."
He was, first and foremost, a man of the House of Representatives -- and one whose style and civility will be missed.