WASHINGTON — Fifty seven years ago, Rep. John Dingell, who this week becomes the longest serving member of Congress in history, nearly began his career in tears on the floor of the House.
The Michigan Democrat was a freshly elected 29-year-old on his first day on the job. Members like legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn — all “the real giants” of the House, Dingell says — were delivering tributes to his father, John Dingell Sr., who had died recently.
The younger Dingell had just won an election to replace him. Now it was his turn to speak.
“I had to go to the well of the House and express my appreciation,” Dingell said in an interview. “Quite frankly, it was a highly emotional moment. It was quite hard to keep from crying.”
From that unsteady beginning, Dingell assembled a record that epitomized the power of the legislative branch of government and the changes it has undergone over the last century. And his longevity testifies to the formidable willpower of a man nicknamed “Big John” for his 6-foot-3 stature and his sometimes imperious demeanor, as well as the skill of a politician who won elections in a state he had barely lived in since he was a child.
Few members, even House speakers, can claim the influence or breadth of Dingell, who on Friday will eclipse the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia as the person who served in Congress the longest.
He has reigned as a powerful committee chairman, putting his imprint on legislation in areas as varied as air quality, consumer protection, health care, energy and the auto industry. He earned a reputation as one of the sharpest government watchdogs in Washington, famous for his lacerating style of interrogation at committee hearings. And the loss of his chairmanship in recent years marked the end of an era in which senior members ruled Congress without challenge.
“It goes by like a blur,” said Dingell, of the period in which he has served with 11 presidents. “This job is incredible. You put in so much, but you get so much more out of it.”
Dingell says he has survived by taking the long view_trying never to be angry, even when projecting wrath at bureaucrats he considered dilatory or opponents he thought were wrong.
“John Dingell was the mighty chairman of Energy and Commerce — everybody had a little fear and trepidation dealing with him,” said former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois.
Dingell first saw the House as a 6-year-old boy accompanying his father, a New Deal Democrat who held a seat that represented Detroit’s growing auto industry. The younger Dingell joined his father on the floor when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan. After serving in the Army, he supervised elevator operators at the Capitol during college and law school.
After Dingell won election in 1955, one of his most fulfilling, but also politically dangerous, moments came when he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which eliminated unequal voter registration requirements and outlawed racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public areas.
“Damn near lost an election over it,” Dingell said, matter of factly. “The Wall Street Journal gave me a one in 15 chance of winning that race.”
The black community took note, said Michigan Rep. John Conyers, who served on Dingell’s staff before he was elected to Congress in 1964. “He was in the forefront,” Conyers said.
As he gradually acquired seniority and clout, Dingell played a key role in the creation of the Medicare program in 1965, and wrote the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
He has also carefully protected his state’s priorities — helping secure bailout funds for the auto industry and angering environmentalists by fending off pressure for tougher emission standards.
“That’s what’s great about him,” said Carl F. Brooks, a retired state employee from Ypsilanti Township, Mich., who had just seen Dingell at an Earth Day concert. “He’s the kind of politician who’s around if you need him.”
Dingell, as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1994, made the panel one of the most aggressive and wide-ranging in Congress.
The committee’s investigations prompted the resignation of President Ronald Reagan’s EPA Administrator, Anne Burford, over problems in the SuperFund program and former Stanford University President Donald Kennedy over questionable research expenses charged to the government. The panel laid the groundwork for the criminal conviction of one of President Ronald Reagan’s top advisers, Michael Deaver, for lying under oath.
Dingell became known for sharply worded investigative letters dubbed “Dingell-grams” sent to agencies. And he brusquely dismissed witnesses if he didn’t like what he was hearing. Nobel Prize winning scientist David Baltimore, a target of a Dingell investigation into his research, complained he felt “hounded” by his committee.
When former Vice President Al Gore testified in 2009 in support of so-called cap-and-trade legislation, Dingell snapped, “Cap and trade is a tax, and it’s a great big one.”
Dingell’s tough style worked, said Republican Rep. Joe Barton, of Texas, who followed Dingell as chairman of the investigative subcommittee. Dingell “always had the most effective oversight in the House and the Senate,” said Barton.
Dingell no longer holds such clout, having been dethroned by Democrats pressing for more environmental legislation. And age has taken a toll. Now 86, he walks with a cane or scoots around the Capitol in a motorized cart with a license plate that reads “the Dean,” a reference to his status as the longest serving House member.
If Dingell has a reputation for being hard-nosed, he also maintains the old congressional tradition of cordiality with colleagues, friend and foe. He says he’s sad that tradition seems to be dying.
“This place has become excessively partisan,” he said, adding “there are so many internal pressures and external pressures that make it this way. They want to see angry people.”
Dingell likes to regale visitors with stories about his hunting exploits — his office is covered with big game trophies — and his love of the ballet and classical music. His first date with his wife Debbie — a prominent Democratic activist — was to a ballet performance.
Dingell said he does not know how much longer he’ll serve but he’s not ready to leave yet.
“I’m not going to stay around here until people say, ‘I knew him when he was a good man, now he’s this doddering old fool,” he said.