WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.