Congressman John Dingell reflects on his decades of service

Feb 24, 2014

(Editor's note, this commentary was first published on August 13, 2013. We shared it again today in light of Rep. Dingell's announcement that he will retire.)  

You probably know that this year, John Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. Legendary Speaker Tip O’Neill’s autobiography was called “Man of the House.” But Dingell deserves that title more.

80 years ago, shortly after his father was elected to Congress, the first John Dingell took his six-year-old son to work.

Yesterday, the congressman told me, “We walked through the biggest doors I had ever seen into the biggest room I had ever seen.” For young John, it was the beginning of one of the longest love affairs in history.

Within a handful of years, he was a page, then a Capitol elevator operator while he went to college and law school.

He was back in Detroit, working as an assistant Wayne County prosecutor in 1955, when his mom called and said his father, still a congressman, was at Walter Reed Hospital.

The younger Dingell managed to get there just before he died. Three months later, he won a special election to succeed his dad.

The legendary Sam Rayburn swore him in. President Eisenhower was in the White House, America had 48 states, and Detroit was a crowded city of 2 million people.

Nearly 58 years later, John Dingell is still there. He is 87 and walks with a cane now; his voice is softer than it used to be, and he needs a hearing aid. But it is neither exaggeration or flattery to say that mentally he is as alert as anyone in their fifties, with far more wisdom and experience.

He isn’t prone to hyperbole. And I wanted to know whether Congress is more dysfunctional than he’s ever seen it. Without hesitation, he said yes. “This has become an essentially non-functional institution, and the business of the nation is being neglected,” he told me over a fascinating lunch.

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

But today, he said “If someone is willing to negotiate with us, he is likely to get a phone call saying the Koch brothers will be funding a primary against you.” In fact, “The Republicans are so busy fighting each other they don’t even have time for us Democrats.”

I asked if he were 29 again, would he run for Congress today? Dingell paused. “I probably would, but if I knew what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t,” he said. 

I wondered if he thought the current gridlock would ever end. He said it would, in one of two ways: Either one party will win by such a landslide they control everything, or there will be a crisis so terrible the nation will have to come together.

Not that he wants to see either.

The laws of nature mean that John Dingell will probably have to leave Congress fairly soon, and if he were any other man I would say he already had been there too long.

But I know that when he does decide to go hunt ducks full-time, the nation and the nation’s business will have suffered a major loss.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.