Bob and Newt
Posted on March 2, 2011
I spent 20 minutes trying to find my cell phone this morning, which made me 20 minutes late for a birthday breakfast honoring my old boss, Bob Michel, the former House minority leader.
There was an upside to being a little late though, because I was able to hear a nice tribute to Bob on XM/Sirius radio. Tim Farley saluted Michel on his birthday and played a clip from his response to Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1993.
Michel’s tough response to Clinton set the tone for a long two years for the new President. Michel doesn’t get enough credit for organizing the opposition to the Clinton agenda. He stopped Hillary-care in its tracks, mostly by coming up with an alternative that scared the Democrats because it would have won on the House floor. He organized his members into a “Theme Team”, which helped slow down Clinton’s “stimulus” plan. He worked well with Bob Dole and the governors.
Bob was a master legislative strategist, which is why he was the longest serving Republican leader in the history of the House. It was Michel’s legislative acumen that helped Ronald Reagan enact his economic program in the early 80’s.
It is the nature of the House that the leaders are cast as being more moderate than the followers, and that is certainly the case with Bob Michel and Newt Gingrich.
We used to like to point out that Bob Michel had a more conservative voting record than Newt Gingrich, but Newt had a reputation as being more of a right-winger.
And that might have been true. Newt certainly was more aggressive than Bob publicly. Bob protected the institution, while Newt sought to destroy it. Newt shared the view of the unnamed American army officer from the Vietnam War: “We had to burn the village in order to save it.”
At breakfast this morning, Bill Gavin, Bob’s extraordinarily talented speech-writer (and mentor to me), reminded us about how Michel chose to speak on the House floor when it came to the debate on whether or not to give the first President Bush the authority to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. As the Minority Leader, Michel closed the debate on the motion. In the speech, Michel didn’t question anyone’s patriotism. He didn’t pound his chest. He explained to the opponents of the war, who were mostly liberal Democrats, that they may have had different views because of their own personal experience. Many of the Democrats were influenced by their experiences with the conflict in Vietnam. Michel’s world view, though, was shaped by his experiences in Germany and France in World War II. To Michel, isolationism was not an option. The world catches on fire when America does not lead. The resolution passed, mostly because of Michel’s bold leadership.
Michel knew something about war. He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He saw a lot of death and dying up close and personal. While Newt loves the Army and everything about it, he never actually served in it. And while I don’t begrudge Newt’s lack of service, (after all, I never served either), I tend to listen more to the wisdom of Bob Michel when it comes to war and peace.
Michel is conservative in a Burkean sense. He respects tradition. He would never wear his religion on his sleeve. He practices old-time conservative virtues like honesty, integrity, frugality, self-reliance and humility. He is old school, but someday, those old school virtues will come back in style. At least I hope so.
My first interaction with Newt came when I was an intern for Bob. I was sent to fetch Newt some lunch (which back in those days, was a big platter of fruit), as we met with Bill Pitts, Michel’s top legislative strategist.
Pitts was trying to figure out if Newt would be a loyal Whip or an independent agent, and more times than not, Newt was an independent agent, not a reliable partner.
Newt is getting ready to announce that he is running for President. I like Newt. I think he is very, very smart. But he is not a conservative in the traditional sense. He is a radical in the Thomas Paine sense. He is a revolutionary. He is a Sam Adams, not a John Adams.
Unfortunately, Newt’s smartness is often over-shadowed by his demagoguery. He tends to go for the jugular in ways that needlessly polarize the nation. I don’t know why he does that. It is a mystery. He has a lot of good ideas, many of which can and will move this nation forward. He was the first one to really talk about health care technology. He understands the importance of bringing talent into this country from around the globe. He believes that government does have an important role in building infrastructure and investing in science.
But most people don’t remember those good ideas. They remember, instead, his white-hot rhetoric is spoken to inflame rather than inform.
Had Bob Michel taken the Speaker’s gavel instead of Newt Gingrich in 1995, he would have governed the House like John Boehner is governing the House today. He would have demanded regular order. He would have let the House work its will. He would have had an open-process.
It is unlikely that Bob would have pushed through the Contract with America. But he would have restored the honor of the institution, and the country would have been better off because of it.
Michel never regretted his decision to leave the House that he loved, and he never looked back. He turns 88 today, and he looks as fit as a fiddle.
Bob never really got caught up in the ideological battles of who was more conservative or who was more moderate. For him, it was enough to live a life of service, practicality and common sense.
For years, people have begged him to write a book to share his experiences and his insights, and for years, he has resisted those entreaties. And so the task falls on those of us who knew him and who worked for him to sing his praises and to point to his example. So, Happy Birthday Bob, on number 88. You are a great American, a great patriot and a great role model to all public servants.