John Dingell's Long View
The Dean of the House on Congress, presidents, and representing Ann Arbor
From the April, 2014 issue
"Look at him working the room!" an audience member marveled. Congressman John Dingell, eighty-seven, wearing a navy suit and leaning on a crutch, was moving from table to table at the Kensington Court Hotel, greeting people with hugs and handshakes.
The occasion was Dingell's last annual "State of the District" speech in March. His recent announcement that he would not seek re-election made national news, because he has served for more than fifty-eight years--longer than any other member of Congress in history.
Dingell has represented Ann Arbor since 2002, when a GOP-orchestrated redistricting extended his suburban Detroit district westward. After winning a primary battle with popular Ann Arbor Democrat Lynn Rivers, Dingell quickly overcame any lingering ill will with sheer hard work. "I never talked to Congressman Dingell when he didn't say, 'John, are we doing everything we can do for you and Ann Arbor?'" recalls mayor John Hieftje, who enlisted his support on everything from funding the Stadium bridges to buying hybrid buses for the AAATA.
Though Dingell lives in Dearborn when not in D.C., this year alone "he's made dozens of appearances in Ann Arbor," says aide Chris Schuler. He's met with supporters of a higher minimum wage at Zingerman's, discussed the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, went to a Michigan Education Association legislative breakfast, attended the visitation for the late labor activist Fred Veigel, and spoke to the U-M College Democrats.
Eve Silberman talked to Dingell shortly after he announced his retirement. Some of his answers have been edited for length.
Observer: What did you learn about Ann Arbor that you hadn't known before?
Dingell: I've represented Ann Arbor a dozen years. It's been a wonderful experience--I don't have any complaints.
Every time the city had need of assistance in a project, we worked with them. Not only were they extraordinarily efficient, they worked hard [and were] pleasant to deal with. It's always been a good experience all
Observer: You didn't find Ann Arborites to be unusually demanding?
Dingell: I always found them to be people who were trying to make things better. I never had any reason to criticize them and what they were trying to do.
[One major issue is] to get control of the costs of the student loans--I've got kids in the office who have bills for student loans bigger than their mortgages, their houses--explain that to me if you can.
Observer: You told the Detroit News that serving in Congress is "obnoxious."
Dingell: The Congress has become a very difficult place to serve. [It] started, as I recall, when [former House speaker Newt] Gingrich came in and started running against the Congress and [members] decided to get themselves elected by denouncing the Congress.
We're supposed to be talking together. I don't see that being done. I think it's a bad thing--bad for the country, bad for Congress, bad for the people.
Over your years in Congress, what memories stand out?
Dingell: It's a place where things were always happening. As a page I saw the House extend the draft by one vote [in 1941. If it had failed], that could have cost us World War II. I saw the declaration of war by the Congress.
I have voted on all kinds of legislation--food and drugs, consumer protection, environmental policies, the Endangered Species Act.
I helped lead the fight to save the auto industry, not once but three or four times. I've worked hard to get civil rights legislation through. I saved millions of acres of land for conservation and recreation. I built the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. I've reformed the food and drug laws to protect people from unsafe food, sometimes unsafe pharmaceuticals. I wrote the National Environmental Policy Act. I've done a lot of other things that would probably bore the daylights out of you.
Observer: Did you meet President Roosevelt?
Dingell: Only once very briefly. I did get a chance to talk to Truman many times and to every president since.
Observer: Who were your favorite presidents?
Dingell: That's a good question. Truman was a very, very simple, flat, ordinary human being. He was a leader who kept on his desk a sign that said "The buck stops here."
Roosevelt was a man who saved this country from Communism, depression, a war people actually thought we could lose. He was a fellow who spent his time thinking not only how he was going to win the war, but win the peace. I think of the presidents I've known about, [Roosevelt and Truman] were my favorites.
Senior Bush was a very special friend, and young Bush was a man who showed me a lot of personal kindnesses. But I regret to say he was one of the worst presidents we ever had.
And Kennedy was a friend. If he hadn't had one problem he couldn't seem to control, he would have been a great president.
[Nixon] did some very good things and some very awful things.
Observer: Did you ever think about running for president yourself?
Dingell: I did, and I would always go fishing or something and get it out of my head. It's a terrible job. Look at the faces of the men who served as president and see how it ages them.
Observer: What will you do when you retire?
Dingell: Who knows? I'll figure out something. There's plenty to do. I've got a beautiful wife who's going to be elected to Congress. [Debbie Dingell immediately declared for her husband's seat.]
Observer: How would she be different from you?
Dingell: She's very different. If you knew her well and you knew me--there are strong similarities but enormous differences.
Observer: What are those differences?
Dingell: I don't feel free to discuss that, to be perfectly honest. I see things that she would rather I not comment on.
We're great friends, great partners. We have a love affair that ranks with Romeo and Juliet.
Observer: You have seen history made before your eyes.
Dingell: It's been a great life, an extraordinary life. I've seen this country change. I've seen Washington change from a hick town to a very polished town.
I've had the opportunity to see the world change and the Congress change, not always for the better.
Observer: Will you write a book after you retire?
Dingell: That's a great question. I don't know how to answer it at this time. I hope to write [one].
Observer: Do you like to write?
Dingell: No, I detest it.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]