John Dingell, statesman

Longest-serving congressman in the history of this nation to step down.


U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan is the longest-serving congressman in the history of this nation — the only one left who was sworn in by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn. That happened in December, 1955, when President Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, John F. Kennedy was a little-known freshman senator, and space travel existed only in science fiction.

President Obama, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and most other Americans were years away from being born when Mr. Dingell succeeded his father in the House after the elder lawmaker’s death. In the six decades since then, he has been a strong advocate of the auto industry, most notably as the longtime chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee — but also someone who would let the Detroit 3 automakers know when they needed to change their ways. He has fought for civil rights and balanced conservation policies.

For three decades, Monroe County was part of Representative Dingell’s district. He was knowledgeable about its issues and responsive to its voters’ needs. Nobody doubts that he could have won re-election again this fall.

But Mr. Dingell announced Monday that 29 full terms (and one partial one) are enough. “My standards are high for this job,” he told supporters. “I put myself to the test and have always known that when the time came ... it would be time to step aside. That time has come.”

Anyone who talks to Mr. Dingell knows that he remains mentally sharp. But physically, the man who was once called “the truck” will be 88 years old this summer. The toll taken by two major heart operations, hearing problems, and the installation of an artificial hip may have made constant commuting and committee hearings not as much fun anymore.

Though stepping down is probably the right decision, it is hard to see Mr. Dingell go. He has been a rare voice for reasonable compromise in the politically polarized environment of Washington.

“Public service is undervalued in our modern times, and I can understand that when I look at what our Congress has become,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am hopeful that this fever breaks at some point, and Congress goes back to what it should be, the house of the people, standing up for the average man and woman.”

That’s how John Dingell lived his life as the consummate “man of the House.” He had prepared for that career since the day in 1933 when he first walked onto the House floor with his father at age 6.

We selfishly hope Mr. Dingell now takes the time to write his memoirs. His is one life that might well inspire others.