John Dingell | Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
John Dingell Jr. touched the lives of thousands of people, both in small and monumental ways.
The outpouring of grief from his colleagues, staffers and loved ones since his passing on Thursday night is testament to both his remarkable heart and extraordinary career. To note that he was the longest-serving member of Congress in history only scratches the surface.
His political awakening came as a page on the House floor during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Dingell went on to serve in World War II before succeeding his father, John Dingell Sr., in Congress in 1955.
In his almost six decades in office, serving alongside 11 presidents, John Dingell Jr. was best known as “The Truck,” the unmovable chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee where he championed the domestic auto industry. He also played an instrumental role in some of the biggest policy triumphs of the last two centuries.
Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Endangered Species Act, the auto bailout, the Clean Water Act — none of these landmark laws would be here were it not for the feisty and brutally honest Democrat from greater Detroit.
“Over the course of the longest congressional career in history, John led the charge on so much of the progress we take for granted today,” President Barack Obama noted.
But I think if Dingell had been asked to choose the issue closest to his heart, it would have been health care. And it wouldn’t even be close.
“Having no health insurance was always a matter of terror to people I knew, because most of ’em were about one sickness away from destitution,” he told me in 2012. “And people died for lack of health care or insurance.”
It was also a deeply personal fight. “We’ve known sickness,” the former congressman said of his family, which is a bit of an understatement. His father suffered from tuberculosis and was told (wrongly) at one point that he had only six months to live. His mother had stomach ulcers and died of cancer. His sister had polio and died of pneumonia.
As a kid, Dingell had double mastoids. He later contracted meningitis while in the Army.
“If I wasn’t one of the first to be shot up with penicillin,” he said in that same interview, “I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
So his father decided to do something, introducing legislation for single-payer health care every session. Dingell carried on the family tradition. And when Obama began his quest for what would become the Affordable Care Act, Dingell got to bang the gavel he used when Congress passed Medicare in 1965.
As it should have been.
Dingell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t always see eye-to-eye. She backed his opponent, U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers, in a 2002 Democratic primary, which he won. And in 2009, Pelosi helped yank his Energy Committee gavel, which was an immensely painful episode that Dingell loyalists still haven’t forgotten.
But she gave Dingell his due when it came to Obamacare, recognizing his outsized role in the legislation that would eventually help 20 million more Americans have health care. And by all accounts, Pelosi has a good relationship with Dingell’s wife and successor, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the ACA was constitutional, there was only one person I wanted to talk to.
So I drove down to Dearborn and sat with the Dean of the House in his office for a couple hours, as well as the current congresswoman, whom he always affectionately called “the lovely Deborah,” even in her presence. As usual, Dingell had an acerbic assessment of right-wingers who were aghast at the conservative court’s ruling.
“Obviously, there’s been a little sputtering, but I couldn’t pass the Ten Commandments without some of these people raising hell,” Dingell chuckled. “And I don’t think I could get the Lord’s Prayer through the House without some damn fool insisting that we amend it.”
When he talked about what the legislation meant to him, there was none of his trademark gruffness.
“Remember, this is something that’s been my Dad’s dream,” he said quietly. “This has been my dream.”
Nowadays, it’s fashionable to credit U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or the new crop of progressives for pushing single-payer health care. But that erases the powerful Dingell legacy.
There’s so much for them to love in his often-combative 59 years in office. After the tea party takeover of Congress in 2010, a Democratic leader asked Dingell to vote “present” on Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand-inspired budget, but he wasn’t having it.
“That’s a pussy vote,” Dingell declared.
And, of course, Dingell’s legendary tweets, especially those targeting President Trump, paved the way for the unapologetic social media style of progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In eulogizing him on Thursday, Obama subtly noted the often-agonizing way that real progressive triumphs are won.
“John Dingell’s life reminds us that change does not always come with a flash, but instead with steady, determined effort,” he said.
That’s been the story of Dingell’s dream for universal health care, which, sadly, remains illusory. But he never gave up. He fought for every imperfect victory toward that ultimate goal, from Medicare to Obamacare.
John Dingell knew that there was always another battle — and he relished each and every one. It’s on all of us to keep fighting now that he’s gone.
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