Peoria Journal Star

July 9, 2003

Bob Michel recognized for service

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In an emotional Capitol Hill ceremony Tuesday, retired House Minority Leader Bob Michel, who represented the Peoria, Ill., area for 38 years, received the Congressional Distinguished Service award with many of those he inspired to public service in attendance.

Under the gilded dome of the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, a teary-eyed Michel, 80, spoke of the "joy of bringing dissonant factions together" while House Republican leader from 1981 until his retirement from the House in 1995.

His party finally gained control of the House the year he retired.

"You are, in the opinion of many, the greatest speaker this House never had," quipped Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who was Michel's longtime chief of staff and was elected to his House seat in 1994.

Michel was known as a polite, pragmatic lawmaker who enjoyed working out legislative compromises with House members who held views different than his own. He preferred "gentle persuasion" to arm-twisting. His method stands in sharp contrast to the more partisan, ideological battles that resound on Capitol Hill today.

Although recognized as a skilled legislator, Michel also was a respected teacher, according to those who worked for him.

"Everywhere he went, he taught his staff, by example, what it means to be a good public servant," LaHood told the audience.

Like LaHood, many of Michel's former staffers hold notable positions in Washington.

"You respected him so much. You just wanted to work so hard for him," said John Feehery, a former Michel aide who now is press secretary for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville. "He really created a family atmosphere."

Former Michel staffers hold an annual reunion that attracts up to 100 people, said LaHood aide Joan Mitchell, who also once worked for Michel.

Michel recalled how his parents, at first, tried to discourage his interest in politics. They thought it was a dishonest profession.

"Before my parents passed away, they changed their mind," he joked.

But Michel's voice choked with emotion as he paid tribute to Corinne, his wife of 54 years, who suffered a stroke in January and is still going through rehabilitation. She is 77.

"I will certainly treasure this moment for the rest of my life," concluded Michel, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief as he sat down.

Michel was one of four former House members - two Republicans and two Democrats - who received the newly created Congressional Distinguished Service award. The others were: Don Edwards, D-Calif.; Lou Stokes, D-Ohio; and John J. Rhodes, R-Arizona.

Stokes and Rhodes were chosen to be the first recipients of the award last year, but the presentation was postponed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and for illness. Rhodes, who was House minority leader before Michel, is battling cancer.

"All of these men shared certain virtues, even as they pursued different political agendas. Integrity. Humility. Honesty. Steadfastness," said Hastert, describing them as "great leaders who truly made a difference in the lives of so many Americans."