John Dingell, longest-serving member of Congress in history, dies at 92

By: and - February 8, 2019 3:21 am
Rep. John Dingell

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) wields the gavel used when he chaired the committee that passed Medicare legislation in 1965 during an event at the U.S. Capitol unveiling the House of Representatives’ “Affordable Health Care for America Act” October 29, 2009, in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee, Getty Images

Updated, 12:30 a.m.

John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, has died. He was 92.

Dingell recently entered hospice care after being diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago. He suffered a heart attack in September 2018.

Debbie Dingell at a housing hearing in Detroit | Ken Coleman

His wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), did not attend the State of the Union address on Tuesday to be by his side. They were married in 1981.

“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of John David Dingell, Jr.,” she said in a statement. “Congressman Dingell died peacefully today at his home in Dearborn, surrounded by his wife Deborah. He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather, and friend. He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit, and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth.”

John Dingell was the former Dean of the House, serving on Capitol Hill from December 1955 to 2015 — 59 years and 21 days. On June 7, 2013, he surpassed the service record held by former U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.).

Dingell was elected 30 times. He spent years as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and was known as “The Truck.” He was a staunch defender of the domestic auto industry, which caused him to chafe with some environmentalists, even though he helped shepherd the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Dingell’s other passion was health care. Like his father, John Dingell Sr., whom he succeeded in Congress, he introduced a bill for universal coverage in every session.

John Dingell | Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Born in Colorado Springs, Colo. on July 26, 1926 — shortly before the Great Depression hit — John David Dingell Jr. was raised in Detroit. Dingell attended Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, D.C.

His father was a New Deal Democrat who was first elected to Congress in 1932 and became an ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“If you look at the the picture of Roosevelt signing Social Security, you’ll see a little skinny Polack with a big broken nose and a mustache standing in back of him — that was my dad,” Dingell told NPR. “And he was very, very proud of that.”

He served as a page for the U.S. House of Representatives from 1938 to 1943. According to his recollection, Dingell was on the floor of the U.S. House when FDR gave his 1941 seminal speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Dingell served in World War II. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in 1949 and a law degree from there in 1952.

When his father died, Dingell won the seat in a special election held in December 1955. His father’s pictures used to adorn the walls of Dingell’s Dearborn office.

Over the years, he represented Detroit’s westside and later, a portion of western Wayne County and slice of Washtenaw County that included Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

Dingell voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which nearly cost him his seat. He banged the gavel in 1965 when seniors finally won health coverage under Medicare.

“Seniors throughout America have Chairman Dingell to thank for his instrumental role in passage of the 1965 Medicare Act and for his innumerable efforts since then,” now-former President Barack Obama said in 2009.

When Obama made a push to expand health care in his first term, which would become the Affordable Care Act, Dingell broke out the gavel he used for Medicare once again.

The debate over health care became bitter. At a 2009 town hall, Dingell was physically threatened and shouted down as a “liar” for backing Obamacare.

But when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in 2012, Dingell was all smiles.

“Remember, this is something that’s been my Dad’s dream,” Dingell said, without any of his trademark gruffness. “This has been my dream.”

He announced his retirement in 2014. In a candid interview with the Detroit News, he said that toward the end of his tenure, he found “serving in the House to be obnoxious. It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”

Debbie Dingell succeeded him in representing the 12th congressional district. She is now in her third term.

John Dingell wrote a memoir late last year called, “The Dean: The Best Seat in the House.” He had become an unexpected social media icon in recent years. with 252,000 Twitter followers.

One of his more memorable posts was after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, referring to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s comment that some of his supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.”

“Forget the basket,” Dingell tweeted in November 2016. “The truly deplorable ones end up in the Cabinet.”

John Dingell had four children from his first marriage to Helen Henebry. One of this sons, Christopher D. Dingell, served in the Michigan Senate and is currently a judge on the Michigan Third Circuit Court.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.