John Dingell of Michigan was the longest serving member of Congress — ever. He recently wrote, “59 years, … the record for continuous service in the United States Congress, seems to impress a lot of people. I’m not one of them. I don’t give a rat’s ass about records. It’s what you do with your time that matters.”
And what a doer he was.
The heart of this fearless lion of Congress finally stopped beating at 92 years on Feb. 7. That great heart beat through what he called his proudest vote – the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It beat through his many votes to protect our air, our water and our land. It beat through his gaveling Medicare into passage.
It beat steadily every single year as he doggedly re-introduced bills to ensure that every American had access to health care. Decades before anyone ever heard of single payer, Medicare-for-All or Obamacare, John Dingell was there, insisting upon health care as a right.
His cause was working people; his downriver 15th Congressional District was braided with UAW workers, Catholics and conservationists, lovers of Polish paczki, the University of Michigan and the Democratic Party. As a boy he knocked on his district’s doors and met its factory workers, campaigning for his father who served the district for 22 years until his death. He won the right to succeed his father in 1955.
John loved the great outdoors, hunting, his country and his fellow veterans. But above all, his great heart beat for his wife, “the lovely Deborah” who succeeded him in Congress. “I love Debbie more than the air I breathe,” he wrote.
And now, just as John succeeded his father, his soulmate continues his fight, a lioness fierce but broken-hearted. That fight for working people is, I know Debbie Dingell would say, the greatest tribute she can offer to the man she will love forever.
He left Congress in 2015, but John Dingell never really retired. The Dean of the House was dubbed the Dean of Twitter. One need only read his tweets to understand why he cultivated an adoring Twitter following of more than 250,000 in retirement. Donald Trump made him “madder than a boiled owl.” For the new Republicans in Congress, whom he often labeled “gutless,” “spineless Trumpet Blowers” “knaves and know-nothings,” he tersely tweeted, “To my Republican friends in Congress: Retirement is a blast. Naps. Snacks. Join me.”
Like the soldier he was, John Dingell died with his boots on, fighting for a cause greater than himself. He would admonish us not to mourn for him; he would exhort us instead to do, to act together for “the common good, regardless of partisan ideology or petty personality” in order to “preserve, protect and defend our beloved constitutional republic.”