They certainly don’t make ‘em like Bob Michel anymore. From injured war hero to the longest-serving minority leader in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives, he is well known not only as a strong and effective leader, but as a kind soul and consummate gentleman. The Peoria native first arrived in Washington, DC in 1949, an administrative assistant to his predecessor, Rep. Harold Velde. Upon Velde’s retirement seven years later, he was elected to Congress in his own right, where he would remain for nearly four decades. Michel met his late wife, Corinne Woodruff, at Bradley University, and the couple had three sons: Scott, Bruce, and Robin; and one daughter, Laurie.
iBi caught up with Rep. Michel just before his 90th birthday party in April, when nearly 400 people gathered to pay tribute to the legendary public servant. The following includes excerpts from that conversation.
(Editor’s note: The portion about Michel’s years with Rep. Velde and early days in Washington was adapted from an interview conducted by the deputy historian of the House on September 5, 2007, and appears courtesy of the Dirksen Congressional Center.)
Tell me about your military service during World War II.
I ended up a combat infantryman in Europe after having basic training here in the United States. I was shipped overseas… [and] was very fortunate to have been placed in an outfit that had already fought in North Africa and Sicily... It may be hard for people to really understand, but when you’re integrated into a group of seasoned veterans who know what combat is really like… boy, it’s so helpful, particularly when we finally did get into combat. You recognize you were with some people who were going to do the very best they could to preserve your life while we were trying to… destroy the enemy and make progress.
I lasted until the Battle of the Bulge was just about over, and we were going on the offensive again… early in the morning. I was out in front of the platoon, and instead of doing what I was always taught to do—go up the treeline, so you’ve got some protection—our G2 intelligence said all you do is go up and occupy the ground. So I was wide open. Well… the [Germans] were up there digging in, and that’s when I got hit. It was close enough that I could tell… his breech had jammed, and he was working back the bolt on his [rifle]. I could hear it—‘clunk, clunk’—so when that happened, boy, of course I lay still after I was down. Then I got to moving a little bit, so I could use my BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle], prop it up and let all 20 rounds go… The normal practice is, when you do that, the platoon behind you, they build up a base of fire, and then I could go back to a retreat position… where they could take over the fight.
Where were you hit?
Right in the hand, then in the leg. And you know, if his gun hadn’t jammed, he was in a position to saw me right in half… I have many reasons to be thankful.
Did you expect to be over there for so long?
Oh gosh, you didn’t know. Shoot, we were 19-year-olds, you know? What the heck, there was a war going on! Most of the guys my age [thought], ‘We gotta go.’ Nobody thought about ‘skiddooing’ or anything of that nature… We all wanted to go in the Navy Air Corps, and of course, you’ve gotta have good, 20/20 eyesight, and I couldn’t pass the doggone exam initially! There was this doctor down in Pekin… and his recommendation was, each night, you put salt packs on your eyes for about half an hour and drink a glass of carrot juice. So we did that for a month, and son of a gun, it worked; it built up so you could pass the darn exam! But then it didn’t last… (laughs).
But I tell you, when I go back to Peoria High School and see that list of the fellas who didn’t [come home]… I was just floored by the number of young men in my class and right around that time who never came back.
What happened after you were wounded?
I was in the hospital for four months in Britain. And oddly enough, when I was shipped back to the continent, across the channel again, I landed in Le Havre on VE Day… They were celebrating, shooting up the town, and so I thought the darn war had broken out again!
And then those of us who came back were sent to redeployment camp, and I ended up being disabled. Had I not been disabled, I would’ve been put in a category to head over to the Pacific… I was fortunate enough to get back [to the States] just before the semester began at Bradley…
Tell me about your time at Bradley.
The big thing for me was meeting my wife, Corinne. She was a piano major and sang in the a cappella choir. I sang in the choir, and sang double quartet and madrigals… Every music organization there was, I was singing in. That was how I met her, and of course, I ended up being engaged and eventually married after I graduated. She graduated a year before me, she was three years younger, but with my three and a half years gone, it kind of equalized things.
How did you come to work for Congressman Velde?
I ended up being the president of the junior class at Bradley after the war was over. The key decision was when the president of the university called me in one day and said, ‘Bob, what are you going to do after graduation?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve taken all of the insurance courses I can. I like dealing with people. Or maybe law school.’ He said… ‘I want you to go and have an interview with a neighboring circuit court judge, Judge Velde. Everett Dirksen is retiring from Congress and he’s running for his seat, and he needs a man Friday. He’s a good friend of mine.’ I said, ‘Gee whiz, I didn’t take political science. I didn’t have journalism.’ He said, ‘Just go down and have the interview.’ I went down and had the interview with the judge. To make a long story short, we hit it off pretty well… Well, of course, that was 1948 and that was not a good year for Republicans. [But] the judge did win by 5,000 votes…
Let’s go back to your first campaign, when Congressman Velde decided not to run again. Did he endorse or encourage you?
Oh yes, of course. I was his handyman. As a matter of fact, he said, ‘Bob, I’m bowing out. Get yourself petitions in order and file. You know enough about this job to run.’ And I said, ‘Well boy, I’m pretty young, and in a sense, I’m inexperienced as a member, but I’ve got good staff experience…’ But it worked out. Then, there were five of us in that first primary. Our first primary opponent was Jim Unland, who was from the judge’s hometown of Pekin. Dirksen was a House member for 16 years, the judge was a member for eight years—both from Pekin, not Peoria. Peoria was a big city, and so, in some sense, the Peoria residents used to say, ‘You know, it’s about time the biggest city in the district should have a shot at having the member of Congress…’
I should also tell you I really got no encouragement from my mother and father... They were just crestfallen when I said I was thinking about getting involved in politics. They said, ‘This dirty rotten game of politics? You’re thinking of getting into it?’… I said, ‘Dad, I’d like to give it a try. I think you’ve given us the rearing here at home to be able to tell what’s right and what’s wrong, and the difference between the two. I’d just like to have a shot at it, and if I find out that it’s like you say it is, I’ll be man enough to come back and tell you, ‘You were right dad, and I was wrong. And I’ll get out of this thing…’
Well, as time evolved, then my mom and dad got more and more respect for the institution and the system. I was able to tell them how it really worked, and yes, there were bad apples that you confronted in the system. I said, ‘But as you so well taught us earlier on, there are certain boundary lines that you either walk the straight and narrow, or you stray from it.’ And of course… I never forgot what I first learned from my mother and father.
» Passing the Baton
From 1983 to 1994, former Transportation Secretary and Congressman Ray LaHood worked for Congressman Michel, first as administrative assistant and later as his chief of staff, before succeeding him upon his retirement.
LaHood: I came in 1983. Bob decided he wanted to reorganize his district office; the district had gotten a lot bigger, and they were going to open an office in Jacksonville. I had lost an election in ’82 for state rep, and Craig Finley had lost his election, so essentially, [Bob] hired two defeated state reps. Craig covered the southern tier of the district—Jacksonville and Springfield, where he was very well known—and I covered the northern tier, and we put together a great operation. Obviously, Bob was very busy with his leadership job. Our job was to make sure people understood that if they needed him to do something, it would get done. And we put forth a pretty good record, I think.
When we started, Bob was just two years in as leader, and he ended up being the longest-serving leader in the history of the House. There was certainly never any thought of picking anybody as an heir apparent, because nobody was thinking he was going to retire. It wasn’t really until the mid-‘90s when I think he started thinking about it.
Throughout the ‘80s, he was Reagan’s right hand man, and he also got along with [former Democratic Speaker] Tip O’Neill so well. I’ve said so often, people give Reagan and Tip O’Neill a lot of credit for this major legislation, but if it wasn’t for Bob’s ability to hold his troops and reach across the aisle, these things would not have happened. They accomplished a lot, and Bob was part of that team. Throughout the ‘80s, Bob was the leader for Reagan—he really was.
What was it like when you first got to Washington?
I was living at the old Dodge Hotel… I remember when I had those nights, then free, walking down, back and forth, up Pennsylvania Avenue. They were already putting up the stands for Harry Truman’s inauguration… And then, to look up at that brightly lit Capitol Building dome, I was asking myself, as I did any number of times after that, ‘My gosh, here’s little Bobby Michel from Peoria, who’s gotten himself elected to Congress…’ What a thrill.
Tell us about your relationship with President Reagan.
Those were my most exhilarating days… to be his leader. I’ve got a big picture in my Washington office—one of my prized possessions. I’ve got my hand on his chest, and he’s listening very intently, and the inscription reads: ‘Bob, I believe you, I believe you. What’s more important, I believe in you. —Ronald Reagan.’ We turned out to be good friends, and it didn’t hurt that my wife was a good friend of Nancy’s. We got invited over several times for dinner. So those eight years with Reagan, and then four years with George [Bush] the First… Of course, then when George the First lost, I was devastated. I thought, ‘Oh shoot, now I’m going to have to be leader of the opposition.’ And that was Clinton. But I helped him on NAFTA and on minimum wage… and it didn’t turn out all that bad.
How did you feel in 1980 when Reagan was first elected?
Well, that was a wonderful time. My gosh, you thought, ‘We’re going to do great things.’ He had his tax reduction and economic programs, but I only had 192 Republicans in the House, so I was short of 218—the magic figure—which meant that I always had to keep our side solid, plus getting those 21, 22, 23 votes on the other side. And that really determined the kind of leader I was going to be for the rest of my time [in Congress].
When the chips are down, you gotta get the votes. You can’t be kicking them around or calling the opposition all kinds of nasty things… A couple of times I had to tell [former Speaker] Newt [Gingrich] that. I said, ‘Newt, they’re not our enemies, they’re our political adversaries and you treat them with respect… You have to hold your temper.’ When I first came there, [Democrat] Sam Raybourn was the speaker, Joe Martin from Massachusetts was on our side. They traded places several times… and they had a great respect for one another because they understood: ‘Maybe next time I’ll be in the minority, and I’ll wished I hadn’t cussed them out’… so they could get along. And that kind of developed my whole philosophy on how you legislate.
Tell me about your decision to retire, just shy of four decades in Congress, having never become House Speaker…
We were 40 votes behind in the House, and I had to make up my mind. By that time, Newt was rearing his [head]… I thought, what’s so magic about 40 years? I was getting to be 72, and after the war, my hearing was going from the shelling, and we didn’t have earplugs back in those days… And I was an [administrative assistant] for eight years and in the military for three. Gosh, I got nearly 50 years here…
I did not have an obsession about becoming Speaker… and it was probably to my disadvantage I didn’t go out and campaign as avidly as I should have… of course, like Newt did. And then that national campaign [in 1994]… and son of a gun, it won! So, I knew when I made the announcement that morning, I had to get a little teary…
Your proudest accomplishment?
Well, I don’t know. I think one of the biggest decisions was when George the First asked for authority to use ground troops in Kuwait… I took the floor and argued the case—it was a bipartisan vote—and both [Speaker Tom] Foley and I told our members… [to] vote your conscience—this is no party-line vote. And I was making the case that, a generation ago, I was over there following orders, I was just an enlisted man. Now here I am, in a position where I’m responsible for sending another generation into harm’s way. So that was a very emotional time. And I argued the case for giving the president that authority.
Have you thought much about the concept of legacy?
Not really, other than I always thought I was pretty much doing the right thing. I was very happy when Ray [LaHood] succeeded me. I knew there was not going to be much of a change, because he pretty much had the same philosophy… Being in the minority, you really couldn’t be as effective as if you’d been in the majority, so it lacked something there. The history books talk about the speakers and the majority, and how things got done, but like I said with Reagan, it was just a wonderful thing for me… working with the president for an affirmative program, and with George the First—same thing. So you get credit for getting things done. And I think we got enough things done, that it worked out alright. iBi
Special thanks to Frank Mackaman and the Dirksen Congressional Center for their assistance with this article.