A bygone era
11/10/2006 10:47:29 AM - Rich Galen
I had the great pleasure of running into former Congressman Bob Michel the other night. Mr. Michel, of Illinois, served in the House from 1957 - 1995 and was the last Republican to serve as Minority Leader until someone claims the title this January.
An appreciation written in the Harvard Crimson during the time Michel was a Visiting Fellow said:
Michel served in the minority for every one of his 38 years in the House. He never became Speaker; he never chaired a committee; he never chaired a subcommittee. No representative has ever served in the minority longer. It is also doubtful that anyone has ever served in the minority better.
I chatted with Mr. Michel about Wednesday's MULLINGS in which I had railed against the lack of good stewardship by the GOP majority.
Being Bob Michel, he would not say anything bad about the GOP House Leadership. Being Bob Michel, neither could I get him to say anything untowardly about the incoming Democratic majority.
But don't take that as a sign of his being anything but a tough guy. His biography includes the words "D-Day" and "Normandy" and "Battle of the Bulge." From his official Congressional bio:
Served with the Thirty-ninth Infantry Regiment as a combat infantryman in England, France, Belgium, and Germany; was wounded by machine gun fire; awarded two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, and four battle stars.
Mr. Michel served in the House during the terms of some of the most famous Democratic Speakers of the modern era: Sam Rayburn, John McCormack, Carl Albert, and Tip O'Neill.
It was during that time that the press remembers fondly - if incorrectly - that Republican Members could fight and squabble with their Democratic colleagues all day, then sit down to a friendly game of poker that night.
As Stuart Taylor wrote in the National Journal: "Gone are the days when House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Republican Leader Bob Michel saw one another as friends, both on the golf course and in the Capitol."
I'm not so certain that is either as true, nor as benign as legend has led us to believe.
I don't doubt that Republicans and Democrats got together for some cigars, some cards, and some sipping whiskey on a fairly regular basis. It's where the phrase "smoke-filled room" comes from.
I also don't doubt that in between the moments of joie de vivre there were as many heated disagreements over busted deals as there were harsh words over busted flushes.
However, both occurred behind a screen of shared secrecy in the privacy of a club which was almost exclusively made up of White males. Members of the press corps - with the same gender ratio - were often invited but only after agreeing that what happened there (and who happened to be there), stayed there.
Pacts were made. Favors were dispensed. Punishments were agreed to. Tony Soprano would have recognized it. Substitute a hideaway office in the basement of the Capitol for the back room of the Bada-Bing and you've got the picture.
Times were different when the GOP was the permanent minority. It was tidier than the messy transparency of today, but I'm not certain having all that secrecy was better for democracy.
A last point about Bob Michel. Also from that Harvard Crimson piece:
In a chamber where guile and deception were often the tools of the trade, Michel was a straight shooter who believed in principle and honor. His word was as good as gold; his handshake was always a firm guarantee. Michel was so genuine that even dishonest men could not look him in the eye and lie to him.
The essential quality of Bob Michel is timeless. That, we could use more of today. Majority or not.
On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to the Harvard Crimson and National Review pieces. A Mullfoto which is another view of a bad day, and a really stupid Catchy Caption of the Day.