WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Robert Michel, a gentlemanly Midwesterner who championed civility in Washington as House Republican leader but left Congress dismayed by the rise of conservative firebrands in his own party, died on Friday at age 93, a former aide said.
Michel died at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia, where he had been admitted in the last few weeks with pneumonia, said Michael Johnson, a former chief of staff to the congressman.
Michel, a decorated World War Two veteran who was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, was first elected in 1956 to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois and served for 38 years.
His time in the House came during a four-decade era of Democratic control, but as minority leader starting in 1981 Michel helped shepherd the policies of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush through Congress.
In a statement, Bush called Michel “a great American for whom the words ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ and ‘country’ weren’t just a campaign slogan, but a lifelong creed.”
The courtly Michel (pronounced “Michael”), known as Bob, amassed a conservative voting record but believed in bipartisanship and maintained friendships with many Democratic colleagues, including House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Tom Foley.
“It has always puzzled me that in Washington we have no public vocabulary to describe civility, which I believe is among the highest public virtues,” Michel said in 1991.
“Raising the level of your voice doesn’t raise the level of discussion. Listening with care is better than talking in sound bites and thinking in slogans. ... Peaks of uncommon progress can be reached by paths of common courtesy.”
Michel served as House Republican leader for 14 years until deciding not to seek re-election to the House in the November 1994 elections.
With the rise of conservative rabble-rousers like Georgia’s Newt Gingrich in the House Republican caucus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michel’s brand of leadership - consultation with Democrats instead of confrontation - was becoming obsolete.
After Gingrich signaled he might try to depose him as Republican leader, Michel expressed confidence that he would have won but said such a fight would have been “fratricidal.”
Gingrich and his allies sought to portray the Democratic leaders of the House as corrupt legislative dictators. In May 1993, Michel warned that the “politics of anger” was slowly destroying the United States’ civic environment.
Michel announced in October 1993 he would retire from the House after the 1994 election. Michel lamented that Congress was becoming a place lacking camaraderie and deplored colleagues who resorted to “trashing the institution” for political gain.
Gingrich helped engineer a Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 elections and rose to the job of speaker. His ascendancy and Michel’s retirement ushered in a new combative style of leadership for House Republicans, who have remained largely uncompromising ever since.
Michel served in the House under five Republican and four Democratic presidents. The last of them, Democrat Bill Clinton, honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award.
“In the best sense he is a gentleman legislator who, in spite of the great swings in public opinion from year to year, has remained always true to the Midwestern values he represents so faithfully in the House,” Clinton said during the August 1994 ceremony.
Michel was born in 1923 in Peoria, Illinois, long viewed as a symbol of small-town America, and grew up in the Great Depression. He served as an infantryman in Europe during World War Two and earned two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart and four Battle Stars.
After graduating from Bradley University in Peoria, Michel worked in a congressional office until winning his House seat in 1956.
He married his wife Corinne in 1948 and the couple had four children. She died in 2003.
Reporting by Will Dunha; Editing by Bill Trott and Frances Kerry