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Rep. LaHood's mature tone will be missed

It is rare that a retirement announcement by a single back-bench member of the minority party in the House of Representatives sends shock waves through the whole chamber. But that was the reaction last week when Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois put out word that this would be his final term.

LaHood is not a familiar figure to most Americans, because he wasn't Newt Gingrich or Duke Cunningham. He never occupied a leadership position nor was he involved in a juicy scandal - usually the only way to stand out among 435 members.

But he embodies the characteristics that make the House work as an institution. He takes care of his constituent duties, he carries more than his share of the legislative work and - most importantly - he cultivates the kind of personal relationships that build trust across partisan and ideological lines.

In this era of polarized politics, fewer and fewer members of the House fit that description. So when LaHood, who is only 61, announced that he is leaving after seven terms, it signaled trouble for the House - if not for his Republican Party.

The central Illinois district he represents, stretching from his home city of Peoria south through rich farm country to the state capital of Springfield, regularly delivers solid GOP majorities. But no new Republican can really replace LaHood in the dynamics of the House.

This is a man so thoroughly schooled in the rules of procedure, and so trusted by both Republicans and Democrats, that he was the natural choice to preside over the House during the explosive days when it was debating the impeachment of President Clinton.

This is a man who was first elected in the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994 but showed his independence by being one of a handful of Republicans who declined to sign onto the party's "Contract With America."

LaHood is a throwback to an earlier, less strident kind of Republicanism. As a young man in 1977, he joined the Illinois staff of Rep. Tom Railsback, a moderate Republican. When Railsback was defeated by a more conservative candidate in the GOP primary in 1982, LaHood began working for Rep. Robert Michel of Peoria, Gingrich's predecessor as Republican leader. When Michel retired in 1994, LaHood moved into the vacancy.

He has built his legislative base on the Appropriations Committee, one of the few major power centers in the House. The Democratic chairman of that committee, David Obey of Wisconsin, said that LaHood "fought for his principles, but he always fought fair. He was a link to the Bob Michel kind of civility."

LaHood told me that his quitting did not reflect on prospects for a Republican recapture of the House - though Michel in a separate interview clearly indicated that when he and LaHood talked, the GOP troubles were on their minds. Michel said that "when I tried to dissuade him, I said our situation is not so hopeless, lightning could strike."

But after 30 years on one House payroll or another, LaHood said, "The tone is very negative and disheartening. The decibel level is the highest I've heard in politics."

Soon after he became a member, LaHood served as a Republican sponsor of a bipartisan family retreat - a weekend get-together for House members and their families. The idea, he said, was that "if you befriend somebody, you're far less likely to quarrel."

Two years ago, when he and a Democratic friend tried to revive the idea, they found so few people willing to participate that they abandoned it. "That was my biggest disappointment," he said.

LaHood has kept his own friendships across the partisan divide; with Illinois Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama - and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. "But people at home are so disenchanted with Congress because all they see is us yapping at each other."

A few years ago, when the House honored Michel with a medal for his service, LaHood spoke about the lessons Michel had imparted to his staff.

As a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he noted, Michel "knew warfare firsthand. ... That is the reason he never used macho phrases like 'warfare' and 'take no prisoners' when discussing politics with his staff. To Bob, the harsh, personal rhetoric of ideological warfare had no place in his office, no place in the House and no place in American politics."

It is a shame when the House no longer holds onto a member like Ray LaHood who understands and lives that lesson.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.