Decency a hallmark as Dingell soldiers on in Congress

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  • Dingell

    DEARBORN, Mich. — Two months ago, John Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. There were stories and celebrations galore.

    Jack Lessenberry.
    Jack Lessenberry.

    Congress named a committee room for him in a ceremony where Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio got teary-eyed.

    Fifty-eight years, almost. Nobody, not even he, ever imagined John Dingell, a Democrat from Dearborn who was born in Detroit, would stay this long.

    But would he do it all over again? What if he were young today, and a seat in Congress opened up? The answer might surprise you.

    “I probably would — if I was the same person I was then. But if I knew what I knew now … I probably wouldn’t.” So said the man who devoted a lifetime to Congress, a trifle wistfully, over a long and fascinating lunch in his district last week.

    “This has become an essentially nonfunctional institution, and the business of the nation is being neglected,” he said.

    “The word ‘Congress’ means coming together. We are supposed to come together to do the people’s business, and for most of my career, that’s what we did,” he said. Both sides would start from a position and gradually negotiate a compromise, “and everyone would support it except a handful on the far right and the far left,” he said.

    But today, he said, too many Republicans regard compromise as a dirty word. “If someone is willing to negotiate with us, he is likely to get a phone call saying that the Koch brothers will be funding a primary against you.”

    In fact, he said, “the Republicans are so busy fighting each other they don’t even have time for us.”

    That wasn‘t the Washington Mr. Dingell came to. Fifty-eight years ago this December, it was a far different world when a gangly 29-year-old was sworn in as the newest member of the House, physically towering over a man who was himself a giant, legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn.

    Television was black-and-white then. Sputnik and any thought of space travel were two years away. Dwight Eisenhower was president. There were 48 states in the union. Detroit was the nation’s fifth biggest city, a vibrant metropolis of nearly 2 million people.

    Two thousand other congressmen have come and gone since then. Nearly all those he originally served with have died.

    But John Dingell is still there. He is no longer the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, no longer the prime shaper of major legislation from Medicare to the Clean Air Act.

    Today, at 87, he uses a cane and a hearing aid. But is he in the least bit intellectually diminished? Not on your life.

    He was and is the model of what former Speaker Tip O’Neill called his autobiography: Man of the House.

    Mr. Dingell’s love affair with Congress goes back far longer than his own career. Eighty years ago last winter, as a 6-year-old boy, he followed his newly elected father into the House chamber.

    “We walked through the biggest doors I’d ever seen into the biggest room I had ever seen,” he told me. Michigan had gained four members of Congress with the new census. Franklin Roosevelt had swept to a landslide victory, carrying with him dozens of new members, including a second-generation Polish American named John Dingell.

    The first John Dingell was the son of a Polish immigrant who had been a blacksmith. He had a hardscrabble life, in which he was fired from his job as a printer for trying to organize a union. He worked selling meat until he went to Congress with the New Deal.

    Transfixed by the House, his young son became a page at age 12. The younger Mr. Dingell kept that job until just before he left for the U.S. Marines during World War II. When he came back, he worked as a Capitol elevator operator while he went to college and law school.

    He was back in Detroit, working as an assistant county prosecutor, in September, 1955, when his mother called him. His father, who had been fighting tuberculosis since his youth, was in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “I got there just before he died,” Mr. Dingell said.

    Three months later, he won a tough special election to succeed his dad. Since then, he has been re-elected time and again. He survived a couple of tough primaries, the most recent in 2002. Last November, he won his 30th election by a landslide.

    Will he run again next year? He won’t say. But as long as his health permits, you can bet he will.

    He has had an amazing career. Earlier, he was sometimes seen as a foe by environmentalists, who wanted him to be tougher on vehicle emissions and clean-air standards.

    “Politics is the art of the possible,” he said. “I always went for the strongest bill that was politically and technologically possible.”

    Today, he praises the current chairman of Energy and Commerce, fellow Michiganian Fred Upton (R., St. Joseph), as an essentially reasonable man. Mr. Dingell has had an uncanny ability to make friends across political boundaries.

    Someday, he thinks, the current gridlock will end. Perhaps one party will sweep everything in a landslide; perhaps there will be a crisis so severe that people will have to come together. Until then, he’ll keep doing what he can, as long as he can.

    What quality does he value most at this stage in his career? “Decency,” Mr. Dingell says. Not a bad place from which to start, or finish, a career.

    Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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