“In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).” – John Dingell, Washington Post
As the nation says goodbye to the longest serving Congressperson in American history, many people look back on his career, and the lessons he taught to those serving at all levels of government.
Even with his parting words to the nation on February 8 (dictated to his wife on February 7, the day of his death) in The Washington Post, he was humble, educational, and insightful.
In his 60 years of service, Dingell served under eleven different presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 to the end of his final term in 2014 under Barack Obama. President Obama subsequently awarded Dingell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Dingell was a member of the Congresses that passed some of the most landmark legislation in the nation’s history:
- Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Medicare Act of 1965
- Water Quality Act of 1965
- Clean Water Act of 1972
- Endangered Species Act of 1973
- Clean Air Act of 1990
- Affordable Care Act of 2010
The Dingell family, John Sr., John Jr., and John’s wife Debbie have held the US Congressional seat in Michigan without interruption since 1933, when Michigan’s 15th district was created. John Jr. claimed the seat in 1955 following a special election after the passing of his father. The district has passed through 3 redistricting periods, and Dingell was re-elected on 29 different occasions. In 2014, his wife Debbie became the first non-widow to win her husband’s former seat in Congress. 2019 marks the family’s 86th uninterrupted year of serving their district.
Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights, and the Environment were special to Dingell’s heart during his time in office, and in his final words in The Washington Post, he acknowledged that the steps taken to improve life in America were not easy or fast, but the nation is far from done:
“All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.” – John Dingell, The Washington Post
Dingell’s supporters crossed party lines, and his colleagues respected him for his conviction to the nation and his ability to get the job done through compromise. Congressman Tim Walberg, who represents a portion of Dingell’s previous district through the redrawing of district lines, had high praise, “Though he and I are in different parties, I respected John very much for his commitment to civility. Working strong, yes, but civility and understanding that in order to get anything done, we have to have a finding of some compromises.” Walberg continued, “He was able to get things done.”
We asked Congressman Walberg about how Dingell would react to the current congress. “I think if he were in congress today, he’d would be one that would be standing very strongly against the ‘no negotiation’ group,” Walberg said. “He loved America, and that’s what I appreciated (about him).”
Walberg acknowledged Dingell’s ability to be an educator to those who joined him in Congress. “As I sat and talked with him, I learned a lot from him.”
The day before his passing, Dingell was still in the mood for deal making:
The Lovely Deborah is insisting I rest and stay off here, but after long negotiations we’ve worked out a deal where she’ll keep up with Twitter for me as I dictate the messages. I want to thank you all for your incredibly kind words and prayers. You’re not done with me just yet.
— John Dingell (@JohnDingell) February 6, 2019
Others also shared memories or respect for Dingell:
— Detroit Patch (@Detroit_Patch) February 11, 2019
For all @JohnDingell’s legistive prowess, his genius was constituent service, which is why he lasted longer than any congressman in history. Once, when I told him I had a problem with groundhogs, he volunteered to come over and shoot them. I have no doubt he would have done so.
— Jon Pepper (@jon_pepper) February 9, 2019
No stranger to Twitter himself, Dingell was wildly popular for his ‘Dingellisms’ around his office and in 280 characters:
As this Congress begins, a bit of advice for new Members that I received back in 1955:
For the next six months you’re going to wonder how the hell you got here. Then one day you’ll come on to the House floor, look around, and wonder how in the hell all the other fools got here.
— John Dingell (@JohnDingell) January 3, 2019
The 60s were a strange time. Let me know if you find anything fun, dear friend. https://t.co/K6Mk6rcaR5
— John Dingell (@JohnDingell) December 13, 2018
Holy hell that’s a huge cow.
— John Dingell (@JohnDingell) November 27, 2018
Dingell was 92.