Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 25, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Would Dingell do it all again?


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Virtually everyone knows that two months ago, John Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. There were stories and celebrations galore.

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

Fifty-eight years, almost. Nobody, not even he, ever imagined John David Dingell 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,” the man who devoted a lifetime to Congress said a trifle wistfully, over a long and fascinating lunch in his district last week.

Why? “This has become an essentially non-functional institution, and the business of the nation is being neglected.”

“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.”

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 he first 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 House of Representatives’ newest member, 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, two years away. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. There were 48 states in the union. Detroit was the nation’s fifth-biggest city, a vibrant metropolis of nearly two million people.

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

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

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

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

In fact, Dingell’s love affair with Congress goes back far longer than his 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 congressmen with the new census. Franklin D. 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, 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 — and worked selling meat till he went to Congress with the New Deal.

Transfixed by the House, his young son became a page at age 12. He kept that job till just before he left for the U.S. Marines and World War II. When he came back, young John 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. Dad, who had been fighting tuberculosis since his youth, was in Walter Reed Hospital. “I got there just before he died,” Dingell said.

Three months later, he won a tough special election to replace his dad. Since then, he has been re-elected time and again, surviving a couple 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 surely 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 emission and clean air standards.

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

Today, he praises the current chair of Energy and Commerce, fellow Michigander Fred Upton, R- St. Joseph, as an essentially reasonable man. Dingell always has had an uncanny ability to make friends across political boundaries.

Someday, he thinks, the current gridlock will end, perhaps because one party will sweep everything in a landslide; perhaps because of a crisis so severe people will have to come together.

Till 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,” John Dingell says. Common, ordinary decency.

Not a bad place from which to start, or finish, a career.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.