Big John, he was called, even in his 80s, long after he had shrunk from his once-imposing 6-foot-3 hulk and had also lost much of his power, if not stature. When John David Dingell Jr. announced Monday that he was finally calling it quits after serving in the House longer than any public servant in history, he explained that he did not want to be hauled out feet first. Fat chance. One could say that Dingell outlasted the two institutions he loved most, Congress and Detroit. Which went bankrupt first is as much a theological question as a political or economic one, as is the question of which might have the better chance of returning to past glory, but there is no question about Dingell’s place in congressional history.
It is more than a historical quirk that his career stretches back seven decades, to 1955, and the days when Sam Rayburn was speaker of the House. Though he never ascended to the speakership, Dingell was in many ways Rayburn’s heir, an old-school social Democrat who devoted his life not to the celebrity of politics but to the inner workings of the legislative world. He understood that world better than any of his colleagues and probably revered it more, or at least what it once was, having grown up in it as a cloakroom page and as the son of a congressman who bestowed on him both a name and a life’s profession. Follow the line of Dingells back to his father’s first election to the House and you travel back in time to 1933, the year that FDR entered the White House.
In his heyday as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which once had served as Rayburn’s own power base, Dingell the younger enjoyed a House domain unlike any other. Ways and Means and Appropriations got more coverage, but E and C had the biggest staff and largest budget and came closest to issues that defined and shaped the lives of all Americans. Thirty years ago, I spent a year studying Big John and his committee and never came close to running out of material. In Energy and Commerce, I wrote then, day after day, crucial decisions are made affecting everyone who breathes, drinks, eats, smokes, watches TV and movies, listens to the radio, drives, plays the stock market, needs medical care, pays for insurance, enjoys sports, worries about hazardous waste and nuclear power plants, buys faulty products, rides the railroads, and gets buried. That takes care of pretty much all of us, and that was before the advent of the Internet and its attendant technology, which would also fall under the committee’s purview.
Tom Tauke, then a Republican member of the committee from Iowa, once told me that Dingell feels about his committee much as Lyndon Johnson felt about his ranch. Johnson didn’t want to own the whole world, he just wanted to own all the land surrounding his ranch. Dingell doesn’t want his committee to have the whole world, just all the areas surrounding its jurisdiction. His committee was bulging with bright lights and brighter egos. Henry Waxman of California was there, the yin to Dingell’s yang, the short and tall of it (also retiring this year); but so was Tim Wirth of Colorado, Al Gore of Tennessee, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Phil Sharp of Indiana, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mike Synar of Oklahoma and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. No shortage of ambitious Democratic cats, but all, in that sphere, subordinate to their chairman. Some moved on to bigger things, but in the end, he was the last one standing in the House.
When Dingell arrived in Congress, most of his district was on the west side of Detroit, a city that then had 1.8 million residents and was booming with the best year of car sales in history. Over the decades of his tenure, as auto plants closed or moved out, Detroit’s population drained like a tub, with longtime residents gushing through the pipes out to the suburbs by the hundreds of thousands until only 700,000 now remain inside the city limits. The congressional maps of Michigan kept being redrawn to accommodate politics and demographics until Dingell’s district was almost entirely in the western suburbs. While he never shied away from being called a liberal, two issues separated him from the Waxman-Wirth-Gore-Markey crowd – cars and guns. He was a staunch defender of the Big Three, and even as he fought for strong environmental protection usually took the car guys’ side when there was a conflict. It was all in the family, literally and figuratively. Two of his sons worked in the auto industry, and his wife, Debbie, his possible successor, came out of the General Motors lobby shop. His opposition to most gun control legislation and his proud membership in the National Rifle Association were more related to the car culture than you might think. There was a long tradition in Michigan of autoworkers using their disposable income and hard-won vacations on cottages up north of the city where they hunted and fished.
Dingell attached himself to the cultural mores of his Detroit heritage, but in his life’s story, a tale of two cities, Washington, not Detroit, was the dominant place. He grew up mostly in Washington and went to school at Georgetown Prep and Georgetown before beginning his unprecedented run in Congress. He had the stern exterior of a prosecutor or high school vice principal, precisely enunciating each syllable of every word as though he were issuing a proclamation from above, yet his favorite haunt outside the Rayburn building was the Kennedy Center, where he pursued his obsession with ballet. Not exactly lithe, this Big John, but he had a certain grace of loyalty and doggedness and authenticity that is now dancing off the stage, never to be repeated.