Five years ago next month, I wrote a column headlined “The End of an Era in Congress,” paying tribute to Rep. John Dingell, who had just announced his retirement after nearly 60 years in the House. Last Thursday, John passed away at age 92—a full life lived, but still cut too short.
John Dingell was an American institution, an icon, a force of nature, in my judgment the most accomplished member of the House of Representatives—certainly in the past century and probably ever. He was also a friend and one of the finest people I ever met.
John didn’t go quietly: His book, The Dean: The Best Seat in the House, was published in December, and over the last few years he became prolific with wicked comments on Twitter to his 269,000 followers. On his last day on Earth, he dictated a farewell that was published in The Washington Post. He spoke that day on the phone with former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. It says something about someone when they have two funeral masses planned for them: one on Tuesday in Detroit, with former Vice President Joe Biden and Reps. John Lewis and Fred Upton scheduled to speak, the other in Washington with Clinton, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and former Speaker John Boehner slated to give eulogies.
Those who had the privilege of knowing or working for Dingell will love The Dean (coauthored with David Bender). It is a remarkable life history: some real wisdom, plenty of attitude sprinkled with salty language. His sense of humor abounds; when an earnest young Obama White House staffer was showing Dingell to the East Room of the White House for the signing of the Affordable Care Act, Dingell remembered thinking, “I had been navigating those halls since before that young man wasn’t an itch in his father’s crotch.” After all, he first came to Capitol Hill at age 6, when his father was elected to Congress in 1932. John and his younger brother Jim would have footraces down the hallways of the Longworth House Office Building. (In his latter years in Congress, he raced scooters with the aging Rep. Ralph Hall, the winner getting to take on the reigning Hill scooter champ, then-Rep. Tammy Duckworth.)
For those who didn’t know Dingell, the book is an education in the way Congress used to work. There is a great story about when an opponent was attacking Dingell for his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—something not universally approved of among many working-class white ethnics in the district. The night before the primary, Dingell was alerted by campaign workers that one set of vicious attacks were being put on the doorsteps of white voters in neighborhoods where it wasn’t popular, while a different set of ugly flyers were being put on the doorsteps in African-American neighborhoods. Anticipating this, Dingell had organized a “Dawn Patrol” that during the night scooped up the literature dropped in the white neighborhoods and put them on doorsteps in the black neighborhoods, taking the scurrilous fliers left on black doorsteps and putting them at the doors in the white neighborhoods. It worked!
Those who were unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of his Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearings may find it useful in understanding what motivated the man. Back in the day, Dingell was famous for terrorizing any corporate CEO, government official, or anyone else with power or privilege who he suspected of harming the taxpayer, the consumer, the little guy. After some particularly tough hearings, Dingell’s staff would often check the witness’s chair to see if there was a wet spot.
Watching John with his “Lovely Deborah”—that would be Rep. Debbie Dingell, who won John’s seat—revealed the most committed marriage I ever saw. He worshipped the ground she walked on, and she was the same toward him. The story of their courtship was hilarious. Debbie Dingell is every bit as tenacious as he is and is already making her mark in the House; having been an understudy of John’s, she didn’t miss much.
In October, the last time I saw him, his recliner was almost surrounded by books he was reading, had just finished, or had queued up—a lot of history, particularly World War II. He was geared up in his University of Michigan sweater, awaiting the Michigan-Wisconsin football game that night on television (his other sports passion was the Detroit Tigers). Before I left that afternoon, I was flabbergasted when he asked, “My friend, tell me the truth: Did I make a difference?”
The list of landmark pieces of legislation he authored or played a key role is endless. So yes, John Dingell, you made a hell of a difference in millions of lives.