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Life, Love, Longevity And Legacy: Remembering John Dingell

John Dingell
Wikipedia Media Commons

The nation’s longest serving Congressional member has passed away.  Michigan representative John Dingelldied at home Thursday at the age of 92.  89.1 WEMU’s David Fair reports on the life and legacy of a political giant.

You might say he was born to be a politician.  Dingell followed in his father, John Sr.’s, sizeable footsteps to Capitol Hill.  The elder Dingell served in Congress for 22 years until such time he passed away.  John Jr. was then elected in 1955.

“Mr. Dingell revered his father above all other people. And he would revere him primarily for his great courage. And the quiet fact is he emulated that and maybe surpassed it.”

That is Washtenaw County Commissioner Andy LaBarre.  He worked for Dingell in a variety of capacities for a period of five years.  LaBarre notes that, during Dingell’s 59-year legislative career, he was key in getting several landmark bills passed into law and continued to push for others for which he had deep conviction.

“You can talk about his vote for the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Act. You can talk about his introduction year after year for a national health care system. He quietly was the driving force behind the Endangered Species Act, Environmental Protection Policy Act…”

And, you might not be hearing this story without John Dingell.  He was a key supporter of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that allowed for creation of PBS and NPR.  Back in 2012, Dingell addressed an Ann Arbor audience in his 12th Congressional district and expressed great pride in that accomplishment.

“I have to say that public broadcasting has far exceeded our hopes. Not our expectations, but our hopes, because you provide extraordinarily good service to the people.”

How exactly does a politician keep winning elections for nearly six decades?  Jason Morgan is another former Dingell staffer that now serves as chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.  He recalls a long car ride home with the congressman after yet another district event that afforded time for the answer.

“We really don’t need to go to quite so many events, you know. People know you. They know you care. And I said, ‘Why do you do it?’ And he said, ‘Well, why wouldn’t I? We work for the people. That is what we do. And it doesn’t matter if you’re tired. It doesn’t matter how far you have to travel to get there.’ He would always just say, ‘We work for the people. That’s my job. And that’s just what we do.’”

No one ever called Dingell perfect, though.  The social liberal was often taken to task for his position on issues considered more Republican.  As an avid hunter and sportsman, he was fond of guns and bucked the Democratic party line on gun control.  That caused some within his own party to call him a hypocrite.  Eastern Michigan University Political Science Professor Ed Sidlow says Dingell always stood his ground and found a way to make it work.

“He was an extremely talented politician when he was in Congress. He managed to be good to the automotive companies and be also viewed as very, very, pro-environment. And that’s a real tight wire act that he was able to walk and walk quite successfully.”

Leigh Greden once served as Dingell’s Chief of Staff.  He says when Dingell did make a mistake, he owned up to it. 

“And he said, ‘One of the very few votes that I regretted was my vote for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the 1960’s. And I said, ‘Really? Why is that?’ He said, ‘They twisted my arm. They lied to me. And I regret casting my vote for that resolution.’”

To those that knew him, Dingell could be counted on to hold himself personally accountable and to offer loyalty to his constituency, his friends and most especially to his family.  After a failed first marriage, John met a woman named Debbie Insley.  You know her as John’s successor in Congress.  After nearly four decades together, Debbie Dingell was with her husband when he passed away on Thursday.  Jason Morgan witnessed that relationship, firsthand.

“I’d never seen anything like it. You may have heard him many times refer to her as ‘The Lovely Deborah.’ And I think that’s how he sees her in his mind.”

Andy LaBarre says it really is an American love story.

“I have never seen a man 30 years into a marriage be so in love with his wife. And I have never seen such tender fierceness between a couple in terms of their love for each other.”

And now, Mrs. Dingell is tasked with carrying on the work they have created together.  All in all, a Dingell has occupied a seat in the U.S. House for over 80-years, consecutively.  While she makes her own mark, Professor Sidlow says John’s legacy is secure.

“I think he will be remembered as an honorable, long-serving member of the House of Representatives who really represents the greatest generation. His legacy will be found in the fact that people will come to recognize that there are fewer and fewer making an honorable career for life out of politics as Congressman Dingell did.”

And, how did John Dingell view the nature of his personal responsibilities as a public servant? 

“The importance of government was to really enrich the life of the country. And that real value comes for things which improve the quality of life and make things better for Americans.”

John Dingell: Gone at 92.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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