It’s been two months since the country’s longest serving congressman, Michigan’s own John Dingell, passed away. 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry sat down with his wife and the person who currently holds that 12th District Congressional seat Debbie Dingell for an honest and emotional conversation about community, civility, and healing.
Many emotions are shared in this, the more personal part of the interview. Congresswoman Dingell begins by talking about her recent remarks about gun ownership before fellow members of Congress. Then, she shares more about her long relationship with John Dingell, his final days, and the impact he’s had on the country.
To listen to Part 1 of this conversation, click here.
Lisa Barry: You recently shared before your colleagues at Congress when discussing proposed gun legislation that you grew up fearing possible gun violence in your own home. How was that received on the floor of Congress? That was where you made your comments, right?
Debbie Dingell: Well I hadn’t planned on it. Most people don’t. It was during a parliamentary situation where it was a motion to recommit and people didn’t know what the topic was going to be. So when it was domestic violence, they came up and said, “Can you speak?”
LB: Knowing what you were going to say or just in general?
DD: I had five minutes’ notice, so I didn’t know what I was going to say. So that speech came from inside of me in the bottom of my heart. You know, it’s complicated and that’s what people don’t realize. I did live in a home that I feared what guns could do. And, you know, this particular amendment was about allowing a woman if the FBI hadn’t finished clearing the background check in three days that the woman could buy a gun or someone could buy a gun. Anyone can buy a gun quite frankly, Mr. Charleston, and you know there’s a loophole? But I pushed back on it. And by the way, after my father threatened my mother that night which was the night I remember the most, but there were many other nights, my mother bought a gun and it didn’t make anybody feel any safer. John Dingell was a member of the NRA board. I don’t hide from that. I respect the Second Amendment. But I also know that there are people that shouldn’t have guns. I know that someone that has been convicted of domestic violence they shouldn’t have access to a gun because they already tried, you know. 73% of the women that are killed by domestic have been stalked by someone from the year before. So we can try to keep some people from being killed. Just some common sense. If someone’s a threat that you know, their family knows that they’re a threat, if they’re a threat to the community, if they’re suicidal, shouldn’t we try to get them help that they need and keep the gun out of their hands while they’re getting the help?
LB: You’re so transparent when you say things like that. Is it difficult to put them into effect or put them into action or have legislation go along the lines of what you truly believe in?
DD:Yeah it’s very hard. I mean I speak from my heart. I speak from experience. I also research a lot. I’m Doctor Google. Everybody calls me Doctor Google.
LB: Doctor Google?
DD: Doctor Google. I have my iPad, and I do the research on issues. I’ll probably, after this radio interview, I’ll probably get some vitriolic comments on my Facebook. Quite frankly some of the most despicable, vitriolic, ugly, life-threatening comments I’ve had come over this subject.
LB: On guns?
DD: On guns and the domestic violence, believe it or not. But I speak the truth. There are some people that shouldn’t have guns and how do we do some common sense things and work together. Kids should be able to go to school and feel safe. We should be able to go to a place to worship, be it my Catholic church, a mosque, or a temple and not worry if you’re going to get shot. I sit in the back. I always sit in the back row I’m a back row person wherever I am. I sit in church now and think this isn’t a good seat. Could somebody come in and hurt me? Think how many people wonder that? Churches are where you go to find peace not fear of violence.
LB: Now to the hard part. We just marked the two-month anniversary of the passing of your partner, the country’s longest serving congressman and your husband: John Dingell. How are you doing?
DD: I-It’s hard. I’m going to lie I miss him. He was my partner and my friend. I’m trying not to cry here.
LB: If you’re going to cry, I will cry.
DD: You know, I am burying myself in work. I was a caregiver too. He was always the first thing that was just… I was just whole. We were a team. So I miss him, and I’m not going to lie. So I’m working my… and if anybody wants to invite me to anything I’m going into the district I work. I get up and get out of the house early and try to go home late. So, you know, you just keep working. For me, working is the best therapy.
LB: You’re so open on Facebook though. You share everyday what you’re going through. You’re hopefully getting some support and positive feedback from that.
DD: You knowm when I was youngerm I was so embarrassed by what the… I mean, well, actually, I sort of I thought what we were growing up with was normal too, but we didn’t dare talk about anything. We were Leave to Beaver, or the Cleavers; the perfect families. It does hurt. It is hard. And maybe we all need to… if we’re honest we’d help each other. You know I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who have gone through the same thing and just having someone that they can talk to and they share their experience. We help each other. We all go through hard times and we don’t always have to pretend that we’re perfect. So I’m trying to be a good and effective congresswoman and I think I’m delivering. But I’m hurting. And you can smile and people would know that I was lying anyways.
LB: Do you feel his presence around you too?
DD: Oh yes. I can’t even throw his toothbrush out. I mean it sits there whenever I… I can hear him in my ear. When he would always try to keep me and would say, “Deborah” a little, you know. I try to not be quite so intense. I do love the new members of congress cause everybody used to think that I was the intensest member of the delegation. Now they make me look calm. Though calm was never a word that John Dingell would use to describe me. But yeah, I know that he loves me. You feel his presence in little different ways. I see the geese fly over, he loved the outdoors, and I feel him in so many different ways.
LB: I know there was someone listening and he was talking really right up to the end and writing down his thoughts. Is there any discussion on what will happen with those thoughts? Will there be a book? A movie?
DD: When he was writing something, he was having difficulty actually writing at the end of it. Not talking. Trust me. Not till the end. Marla Drutz, who is the station manager at WDIV, had brought him milkshakes and he had yelled at Marla and me at 4 o’clock and told us we’re not competent in putting straws in milkshakes. He had some strong feelings. I don’t think he actually thought it would actually be an op-ed until I showed him the Mike Duffy note. He wanted these thoughts shared at his funeral. He’s written his book. If I can show you the notes and the stories, I’m still getting them every single day, the story that people have of how he helped them and how he made a difference in their life. The adults that met him as a child in school, somebody that tried to get into the country that he helped, a veteran that he helped. And the notes are incredible. I’m still too raw. I’m not gonna… I’m going to miss him a lot.
LB: But isn’t that a legacy we’d all like to leave?
DD: It is. I’m trying to live up to that. I want to make sure that I’m helping people as much as he helped people. I almost want to put those notes into something but I’m not quite ready to do that. It’s a lesson to all of us in kindness to each other, helping each other, reminding us that we are all part of a community, and how we help each other. And by the way, community is the strength to democracy.
LB: And how lucky were you to be married to John Dingell for nearly forty years?
DD: You know, there’s no reason we should’ve ever been together, but I’d say that God wanted it to be.
LB: What do you mean that there’s no reason?
DD: There was an age difference. I was a Republican. He was a Democrat. He was divorced. He got it annulled, and we got married in the Catholic Church. I had dinner every Friday night with thirteen Jesuit priests. I mean that it’s amazing. I turned him down! I was just like, “Why would I go out with John Dingell?” Well, we fell in love and I know that we made each whole. We truly made each other whole.
LB: Any final thoughts you’d want to share with our community or our listeners?
DD: You know, it’s spring. We’re heading into Passover and Easter; times of renewal. We need to worry what’s happening around us. I’ll go back to the hate discussion we were having a few minutes ago. John Dingell would want us to remember that we are all part of a community. I think about it every day. Let’s use spring and these holidays as times as renewal and to remember that we are part of that community. When someone is being bullied, someone’s being mean, someone’s saying something awful, stand up and say, “We shouldn’t be talking like that.”
LB: 12th District Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, thank you for all you do for you community and your constituents. Thanks for speaking for with us on 89.1 WEMU.
DD: Lisa, thanks for having me.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.