WASHINGTON -- The day that John Dingell first stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives, he faced a very different America. A woman named Rosa Parks had just been arrested, the name Emmett Till was in the news and a movie star named James Dean had just died in a car crash.
As of Friday, that was 57 years, five months and 26 days ago, a length that now surpasses the late Robert Byrd’s record for longest serving congressman and propels Dingell into the record books.
Few elected officials have seen so many changes come and go on Pennsylvania Avenue as the Michigan Democrat. Richard Nixon? A great but bad man, Dingell said at a breakfast celebration Friday at offices of The Atlantic. John F. Kennedy? Exciting – but a man whose path to greatness was tragically cut short. Jimmy Carter was, sadly, too focused on details, and Gerald Ford was the most underrated guy around, Dingell said. Bill Clinton was remarkable, with one unfortunate failure.
And the elder George Bush? Why, he was a great paddle-ball partner.
In a wide-ranging discussion about his career, Dingell spilled stories from his front-row seat to the better half of 20th century Washington.
Now 86, Dingell is every bit the politician he was the day he first entered the House. His cropped haircut has long since surrendered to baldness, and his sturdy frame leans heavily against a wooden cane. But he’s still a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill.
“There aren’t many like him, ever,” said Don Riegle, a fellow Michigan politician who served in both the House and Senate. “You’ve got to get lucky to get a John Dingell that shows up and stays this long.”
And show up he did. Dingell, whose father served in the House for 23 years, boasts not just a length of service, but breadth, serving with 11 presidents – “I didn’t serve under any of them,” he said, “I served with them” – and stamping his name on hundreds of pieces of legislation.
He penned the Endangered Species Act, and he helped push through landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 1990’s Clean Air Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and, more recently, the Affordable Care Act.
Chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee for more than 15 years, bureaucrats from every branch of government feared the arrival of a “Dingell letter” – a phrase that still sparks a toothy grin from the congressman.
“I had great fun writing letters,” he said to roars of laughter. “The great words of the English language are those three- and four-letter words that ask questions: How, why, when, what.”
Despite the fear they inspired, Dingell letters got answers. Colleagues on the Hill said the letters signaled a shift in inquiry, a focus on answers rather than punishment, and often led to reform and inspection rather than bruised egos. “We always found that you get a lot more on the letter where you ask questions than when you started some kind of nasty argument,” Dingell said.
The congressman is no stranger to controversy. He spent much of his tenure being criticized for being too close to the auto industry, which he still defends as “just being fair.” His unbroken tenure has many asking how long is too long for a representative to serve.
Dingell doesn’t want to hear any of it.
“I have a term limit. It’s called elections,” he said in a raspy, gruff tenor. “Every two years I have to go before the people and justify what I’ve done. And I have to disclose everything about me except the color of my underwear. And if I’m doing a good job, the people are going to give me the job back.”
Outside of his legislative and investigative accomplishments, longtime Hill colleagues said that Dingell’s true legacy is his long history of bipartisan compromise – a trait that, these days, seems to be harder and harder to find.
Dingell was known for working across the aisle and made efforts to befriend every senior Republican he worked with, fellow politicians said. Compromise should not be the endgame, Dingell said, but rather the starting point to good government.
“We started in the middle, and we worked out,” he said. “And the result was good legislation.”
Heavy hitters from both sides of the aisle, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., agreed on one thing on Friday: It was Dingell’s day.
“Today belongs to John Dingell, one of the greats and the very definition of a man of the House,” Boehner said in a letter. “His devotion to his constituents and his country, the many battles he’s fought and won on behalf of the American people, and the sheer joy he takes in his work have made him synonymous with this institution.”