Maybe the best way to understand how John Dingell survived and prospered over what will be a record-breaking 59 years in the U.S. House of Representatives is to go back to the summer of 2002.
That was when Michigan Republicans figured they had a shot at turning Big John out of Congress by redistricting him into another constituency that included Ann Arbor, already represented by an incumbent liberal Democratic representative, Lynn Rivers.
Dingell’s old district included much of blue-collar Western Wayne County and semi-rural Monroe – places unlikely to fit in happily with the academic liberal “People’s Republic of Ann Arbor”, as the town was widely known in Michigan political circles.
I’d known Dingell ever since 1965, when I was a wet-behind-the- ears administrative assistant to a newly elected congressman, Paul H. Todd, Jr., from Kalamazoo. Mr. Dingell, as he was known to everybody, took a shine to Todd, who ended up lasting only a single term, and every so often his six-foot three-inch bulk would stride over to say “Hello” and swat me on the back.
I moved to Ann Arbor, and in 2002, facing redistricting, Dingell called to ask about the lay of the land. He allowed he was anxious about his primary. He didn’t know much about Ann Arbor, and he worried the new part of his district was inhabited by all kinds of strange folk from Marx-spouting academics to long-haired liberals.
After we talked a bit, he asked if it made sense to put together a coalition of traditional Democrats and moderate Republicans. I thought it did. And in short order, a group of bipartisan Ann Arbor people put together a “Friend-Raiser” for Dingell.
They included prominent Democrats such as Paul Dimond, a local lawyer who had served in the Clinton White House, and some leading moderate Republicans.
Maybe 300 people – Democrats and Republicans – turned up at Dimond’s house, and listened to Dingell’s combination of common sense and vast experience. Then they went out to beat the bushes on his behalf. Dingell lost Ann Arbor to Rivers in that primary, but by less than expected. He won by more than three to one in the rest of the district, some of which Rivers had represented.
Overall, he won handily, with 59 percent. He never had another serious election challenge. There is a serious lesson here: Look at the facts. Talk to the locals. Learn the lay of the land. Sense a coalition and put it together. Get something done.
That’s the Dingell way.
Shortly after Dingell’s decision to retire, I talked with Dimond, who hit the nail on the head: “He was always the statesman in the room. He combined history, economics, personalities, politics … and he always could see the patterns and figure out what needed to be done.”
That’s a pretty good recipe for success as a candidate … and a better one for a career that will go down in history for its record length and its productivity. Dingell was a consummate legislator, one who had the brains to understand the detail of complicated issues and the political skills to pull together often warring politicians into coalitions to pass difficult, complex bills: The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act being just two of the larger examples.
But Dingell never got too big for his britches, no matter how many years he spent in Washington. He liked to refer to himself as a “dumb Polish lawyer” and never lost his love for Michigan’s glorious fish and wildlife and hard-working people. “The lovely Deborah,” he said in his retirement statement, “and I are simply coming home.”
Now almost 88, he realized he could probably have continued, but not at a level up to his very high standards of performance. “I can be a second-rate congressman, and I don’t want to do that,” he said.
Dingell has made no secret of his contempt for the hyper-partisan, win-at-any-cost culture of today’s Congress, something that has helped make the institution he loves less popular with the public than used car salesmen.
His departure pounds another nail in the coffin of competent government in our representative democracy, now quivering in gridlock thoroughly mixed with political narcissism. With all the retirements from the Congress over the past few months, I keep wondering how many mature adults will be left next January, 2015.
In my mind, John Dingell represented the old, distinguished, and now sadly quaint naïve notion that the job of elected officials was actually to work together to govern in the interests of the citizens.
I doubt we’ll ever see another like him, and I am forever grateful to be one of his constituents and friends.