He was a young man when he first came to Congress, tall, gangly, and with questionable taste in haircuts and ties.
Owlish old Sam Rayburn swore him in on a chill December day, saying something, no doubt, about his father, who had held the seat before him, and who had died just months before.
That was more than fifty-five years ago. General Motors, the world’s richest corporation was putting ever bigger tail fins on their cars, and consumers were just starting to wonder if they’d ever be able to afford one of those sensational new color TVs.
That was the world when John Dingell Jr. arrived in Washington at the end of 1955, the country‘s newest and youngest congressman. He was twenty-nine then. This summer he will be eighty-five. Everybody else who was in Congress when he arrived is gone.
Most are dead.
When he arrived, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were years away from being born. He’s stayed in the House longer than anyone in history. Two men have stayed in Congress longer, when you combine time in both chambers.
John Dingell will pass one of them soon. But to beat the other, West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, Dingell has get reelected one more time, next year.
This week, the man they used to call the truck announced that he intended to try to do just that. He’s running again.
That didn’t especially surprise me, although the timing did at first. The next election is not till November 2012. Big John has had knee problems, heart problems, and a hip replacement.
Shouldn’t he wait? Then I remembered: This is a redistricting year. Michigan is going to lose a seat in Congress, and someone’s district is going to disappear. Dingell is telling the legislature not to make it his. Oh, the boundaries will change, but he wants a district he can run in, and win. It won’t be called the fifteenth district anymore. Michigan is only going to have fourteen. It may have more Republicans in it. And he’s likely to have a race on his hands.
Last year, a cardiologist named Rob Steele gave Dingell the first real general election challenge he’s ever had. Steele even led on election night, till Dearborn and Ann Arbor checked in and wiped the challenger out. But Dingell had a scare.
Or I should say, his friends did. Nothing seems to scare, or stop, Big John. They took his committee chairmanship away two years ago, and his party is back in the minority.
But he’s keeping on. Next year’s election will come exactly eighty years after Michigan first sent a John Dingell to Congress, to fill what was then the brand new fifteenth district.
That was his daddy. Last year John Dingell, who first stepped onto the floor of Congress at age six, saw his father’s dream of national health care finally fulfilled.
Next year, he’s hoping the voters give him one last hurrah. You can say he should retire. Dingell thinks otherwise. He thinks he‘s still the best man for the job, and intends to leave it up to the voters to decide. And even his Tea Party critics have to admit this much; It is his perfect constitutional right to do so.