When Rep. John Dingell wakes up on Friday, he will have set a record as the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. Yet one of the many remarkable things about Dingell’s 57 years in the House is the fact that the Michigan Democrat might never have had a political career at all.
Asked if he had planned to run for office as a young man, Dingell, who turns 87 next month, replied with the characteristic bluntness known well by the many who have interacted with him over the decades: “Hell no!”
Not that Dingell was unfamiliar with the workings of Congress. As a boy, when his father was a member of the House, Dingell was a page running errands on the floor from 1938 to 1943, and as he worked his way through Georgetown University and its law school, he was an elevator operator in the Capitol.
But Dingell actually felt lucky to be alive in December 1955 when he won his first election to the House. Ten years earlier, when he was a second lieutenant in the Army, Dingell had orders to join the invasion of Japan when President Truman ended World War II by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities.
After the war, Dingell had settled into a law practice in Detroit, including a stint as a prosecutor for Wayne County, when his father, Rep. John Dingell Sr., died at age 61 after years of battling tuberculosis. “When Dad passed on, my friends and his friends said, ‘John, you ought to run for Congress,’ ” Dingell said. “And I did and got elected.”
So began what can now truly be called a historic legislative career. On Friday, Dingell will surpass the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., as the longest-serving member in the nearly two-and-a-half centuries of the United States Congress.
Dingell, already the longest-serving member of the House, downplayed the milestone in an interview in April.
“How long you serve is not important,” he said. “How well you serve is important. I’m pleased I’ve served a long time, but very frankly I will be more pleased to have people think that I’ve served well.”
Many among the pantheon of decades-long lawmakers made their marks on the institution in distinct ways. Byrd, who died in 2010 at age 92 after six years in the House and more than 51 years in the Senate, was known as a singular authority on the many arcane rules of the upper chamber. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who served 48 years in the Senate until retiring at age 100 in 2003, was considered the voice of the Old South and its resistance to the civil-rights movement.
Dingell will always be best known as a master of congressional oversight in his 16 years as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His first big vault onto the national stage in that role came in 1985, when he exposed a Pentagon contract with what was then Lockheed Corp. to provide toilet-seat covers for military aircraft at a cost of $640 per lid.
The relentless investigators and lawyers on Dingell’s staff uncovered scores of scandals during his chairmanship from 1981 through 1994, his 12 years as the committee’s ranking member, and again as chairman from 2006 to 2008. Among them were waste and fraud in the federal Superfund program, corruption on Wall Street, and improprieties in scientific research.
“Our rule was that we had to be right,” Dingell said. “We didn’t play any games. We did what we were supposed to in terms of treating everyone fairly and having our facts right.”
Attorney Richard Frandsen, who spent more than 30 years as an investigator for Dingell, said the chairman always told his staff to forget about politics and just get to the bottom of how programs were supposed to work and how they were being mismanaged. “He’d say, ‘What’s the right policy? Then we’ll figure out the politics,’ ” Frandsen said.
Staffers for Dingell never wanted to leave because they loved working for him, said Marda Robillard, who was chief of staff in Dingell’s personal office from 1993 to 2000. “You knew he was gonna back you up,” she said.
His toughness as chairman, combined with his 6-foot-3-inch frame and no-nonsense approach to the public’s business, earned Dingell a reputation as a bully in some quarters of Washington. Witnesses who were scheduled to testify before his committee or subcommittee (he led Oversight and Investigations for most of his time as full-committee chairman) were known to pay for seminars on how to handle brutal interrogations.
But those who know Dingell well are quick to point out there’s a lot of cub in the old bear.
“He’s very compassionate,” Robillard said. “He’s an incredible human being, a real Renaissance man. Yes, he’s a hunter and a fisher, but talk to the man about ballet!”
“He’s a plenty tough guy,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar who writes a weekly column for National Journal Daily, and who has lunch with Dingell every couple of months at the House Dining Room. “What strikes me is how courtly, polite, and warm he is to everyone, including people working in the restaurant.”
Even former combatants with Dingell became close friends. Dingell told a story about Frank Zarb, who was energy czar for President Ford and later was president of Nasdaq. “We had some terrible battles,” Dingell said.
After Zarb lost a job in later years, Dingell called him and told him the two were going elk-hunting. “I showed up on his front porch with a rifle and some hunting equipment and a bunch of ammunition,” he said. “His wife looked out and said, ‘Frank, John Dingell is out front and he’s got a rifle. Do I dare let him in?’ Zarb and I hunted elk together for 20 years. We are still dear and close friends.”
Former Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who chaired the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee during Dingell’s last term as committee chairman, said he marveled at how well Dingell took his ouster as chairman by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in 2008. “He was as gracious as could be,” Stupak said.
“It doesn’t do any good to hold a grudge,” Dingell said. “Henry’s wanted to be chairman a long time.”
There has been speculation that when Dingell finally leaves his seat representing Michigan’s 12th District, either his wife, Debbie, a former General Motors Foundation executive and active Democrat who is nearly 30 years younger than her husband, or his son Christopher, a former state lawmaker who is now a Michigan judge, will try to succeed him in Congress and keep the family dynasty going.
For now, Dingell is just savoring 57 years, five months, and 26 days (as of Friday) of political ups and downs in the life of a lawmaker.
When a reporter remarked that his record for length of service will probably stand as long as baseball great Lou Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, Dingell balked.
“I’m not Lou Gehrig, I’m just John Dingell,” he said. “I have an important job, but I’m not an important man. When I’m gone, very few will remember me.”
This article appears in the June 5, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as John Dingell’s Truly Historic Career.