Remembering the late, great Congressman John Dingell
The private text message came in the evening of Feb. 5.
“Not sure that you are aware of this, but Congressman John Dingell, who is in hospice care in Dearborn, is very near death.”
That’s not the kind of news that you expect to get. Everybody knew that he was getting on in years, but not this.
Then, the next morning, a cryptic tweet from “lovely Deborah,” as the 92-year-old former congressman referred to his spouse, Debbie Dingell, or D2 to her friends.
“We have entered a new phase,” she wrote, and you could, unfortunately, read between the lines. And, in a mere three days, the new phase ended.
Prostrate cancer claimed another life.
But what a life!
By now, you have learned that Big John, as he was known around the halls of Congress, was the longest-serving member of the U.S. House in the entire history of the country. And he learned how to work the Congress at the knee of his daddy, John Sr., who served 20 years in the seat which his son took over after his dad passed in 1955. And, just to keep it all in the family, when junior retired in 2015, his spouse ran for the seat and still holds it today.
We learned a lot watching Mr. Dingell. We were also joyfully entertained by him, too, with his razor-sharp humor and pull-no-punches observations on all things political. Yet, when you boiled it all down, his success, in large part, is the most important lesson he leaves to the rest of us.
Washington, and life for that matter, is all about experience and relationships.
Those were in full view during three critical debates with John Jr. center-stage.
Mr. Dingell described the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as his most important accomplishment. It was a tough sell, as the Dixiecrats in the Southern congressional delegation fought it tooth-and-nail. But the congressman from Michigan and countless others joined with a key southern figure who was on board.
When Texan President Lyndon Johnson signed the measure, in memory of the fallen President John F. Kennedy, there was John Dingell, who used his experience and relationships to open the door of Democracy even wider for African-Americans and others who had not shared in the full benefits of our constitutionally guaranteed civil rights.
Mr. Dingell’s skills years were put to the test again.
He watched his dad introduce health care reform year after year after year, and, finally, with President Barack Obama at the helm and without a single GOP vote to do it, the Affordable Care Act was approved. Mr. Dingell was in that photo opportunity as well.
There is not an autoworker in this state or a relative of same that doesn’t owe some measure of appreciation for the roll-up-your-selves work Mr. Dingell did to first save the Chrysler Corp. and then, years later, with GM and Chrysler on the financial ropes, he helped save them, too.
That was a tough sell again, because of some southern lawmakers who wanted to see those Big Two go belly-up, but Mr. Dingell joined with others and used his relationships and experience to save all those jobs.
Life in the Congress, however, was not always a bed of roses. There were some thorns, such as the time he locked horns with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. For almost 30 years, Mr. Dingell chaired the House Energy Committee and, from that perch, he used his power to help the auto industry, including giving it some wiggle room on emission standards.
The more liberal California Congressman Henry Waxman thought the unthinkable. He would challenge the Michigan congressman for that chairmanship. And, even though she claimed to be neutral, Ms. Pelosi was all-in on dethroning Mr. Dingell. When they counted the votes, he was out and Mr. Waxman was in.
Another man might have been bitter, might have acted out with vengeance at the embarrassing loss of power.
“I congratulate my colleague, Henry Waxman, on his success, and I will work closely with him on issues coming before the committee and work for a smooth transition,” Dingell said.
They call that statesmanship, and it’s so sorely lacking these days.
Near the end, the Dean of the House worried about the state of our Democracy, with all the rancor and partisanship and the lack of civility in so many corners.
“If I had an answer,” he reflected, “I would do it.”
But he didn’t.
However in his last letter, just hours before he joined the Congress in the Sky, he advised everyone, “I leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.”
Amen, Big John.