Dingell’s D.C. compatriots bid farewell to ‘Mr. Michigan’

By: - February 14, 2019 9:45 pm

Congressman John Dingell’s memorial in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14, 2019 | Robin Bravender

WASHINGTON — John Dingell would have gotten a good laugh out of his funeral service here on Thursday.

His friends and former colleagues — Democrats and Republicans alike — packed the pews at the historic Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown to bid farewell to the longest-serving member of Congress in history, who died last week at age 92.

Officers stand guard while waiting to drape a flag on the casket of the late former U.S. Representative John Dingell at the end of his funeral at Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn on Feb. 12, 2019 | Pool photo

A separate memorial was held in Dearborn on Tuesday in the midst of an ice storm that grounded planes with several of Dingell’s Washington colleagues. Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the service.

Luminaries, including former President Bill Clinton, former Republican U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and civil rights icon John Lewis, were among those who eulogized the Michigan Democratic congressman at the funeral on Thursday.

They praised Dingell’s influential role in legislation that impacted everything from civil rights to healthcare and environmental protection during his 59-plus years on Capitol Hill. They also devoted plenty of time to poking fun at Dingell, who’s widely known for his sharp tongue and combative nature.

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

Boehner called Dingell a “hard-driving son of a gun” and a practitioner of “tough love” who frequently prodded cigarette-loving Boehner to quit smoking.

The U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) body bearer team carries the casket of World War II Army veteran and former Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) at an Arrival Ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Feb. 12, 2019. | U.S. Air Force photo/SSgt. Kenny Holston

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recalled how Dingell once gaveled a committee meeting to adjournment when he knew he was about to lose a vote. “You may have the votes, but I have the gavel,” Dingell declared.

“He never minced words; he never held back,” Hoyer said. Dingell was “at times acerbic,” but he was “as tender as he was tenacious.”

Clinton called Dingell “a patriot in some cases without peer in the history of America. … He was an old-fashioned man who did things in an old fashioned way that we should adapt for new times.”

He also “managed to find a way to have a good time,” Clinton said.

“I’ve been in a duck blind with [Dingell] when it was so cold the ducks wouldn’t come out,” Clinton said. “And I told him he should look on the bright side, it saved us from a lot of criticism from the animal rights people.”

Being Dingell’s friend meant “getting your hide ripped off from time to time,” the former president said. “You have to understand, that’s in part the mark of an honest friendship.”

Former President Bill Clinton eulogizing John Dingell, Feb. 14, 2019 | CSPAN broadcast

Clinton joked that the funeral would be the only time Dingell’s friends and former colleagues would be in the same room as him “and get the last word.”

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) was House Energy and Commerce chairman years after Dingell held that gavel.

If Dingell had been in sports, his name would be as hallowed as legends like former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, Detroit Tigers right fielder Al Kaline, Tigers announcer Sparky Anderson and former University of Michigan quarterback Tom Brady. Upton noted that Dingell tweeted about “his beloved Tigers and Wolverines until the very end.”

Dingell, Upton said, was “Mr. Michigan.”

In fact, he “forced Steny Hoyer to have a Vernors ice cream float the day before he died in a toast. Steny, I’m surprised you’re still with us,” Upton said.

Vernors ginger ale, of course, originated in Detroit.

Upton recalled how another former Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana made “a real rookie mistake” with Dingell.

Tauzin “leaned over to Big John and said, ‘I want to tell you one of my favorite Polish jokes. John said, ‘Hold off young man, I’m Polish, my grandfather’s name was Dzieglewicz.’ And without missing a beat, Billy said, ‘No problem, I’ll start it over and I’ll speak just a little bit slower.’ True story,” Upton said. “They were bird-hunting friends forever after that.”

Other prominent Michigan politicians filled the church, a Washington landmark where former President John F. Kennedy and his family frequently worshipped.

Rep. Debbie Dingell shakes the hand of a woman after loading into the limo to follow the hearse carrying her late husband former U.S. Representative John Dingell’s casket at the end of his funeral at Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 | Pool photo

John Dingell D.C. memorial | Robin Bravender

Dingell’s wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), was seated in the front row between President Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Also in the crowd: U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Civil Rights legacy

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a key player in the Civil Rights Movement, praised Dingell for supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even as Dingell faced a tough re-election challenge.

“John voted for the bill as an act of conscience,” Lewis said.

“The issue of race was dividing our country and the Michigan statehouse slated him for destruction by cutting a large population of African-Americans out of his district. He was facing a Polish-American like himself who had voted against the bill.”

Dingell called that his “single most important vote,” in a 2012 interview, Time Magazine reported.

“John did not run from his decision,” Lewis said, despite the close primary. Dingell eked it out. “People respect you when you stand up for what you believe,” Lewis added.

Clinton said Dingell became a “particular hero” of his when he was about 13 years old living in Arkansas.

It was 1959, and Dingell had objected to the oath of office being administered to Rep. Dale Alford, a Democratic representative-elect to the U.S. House from Arkansas, based on concerns of voting irregularities.

Alford had “defeated the sitting member for supporting the integration of Little Rock Central High School. And he beat him on a write-in campaign, in which people were allowed to put printed stickers on the ballot even though the law didn’t provide for it. There were other interesting irregularities,” Clinton said.

The issues were later investigated and Alford was seated.

Clinton said it was an important move by Dingell. “He was not afraid as a young man to risk the ire of people who could have wrecked his effectiveness to make the point that no one should gain automatic admission to the House if elected under a system that was not genuinely Democratic.”

Rocky Twyman, 70, who lives in Rockville, Md., traveled to Washington Thursday morning for the funeral. He grew up in Atlanta and has long admired Dingell for his civil rights work. “I just had to be here,” Twyman told the Michigan Advance. Dingell “really did talk down those Dixiecrats. … He was just marvelous.”

Rocky Twyman

Dingell’s friends recalled during the service how his mind remained sharp, even after his health started flagging.

“When his body wouldn’t work anymore and his mind wouldn’t stop,” Clinton said, Dingell turned to “America’s national obsession, tweeting, and became a Zen master. You should read if you haven’t, the collection of John’s greatest Twitter hits.”

Clinton spoke to Dingell about a day before he died, noting, “his mind was clear and his spirit was strong. … The idea was, you ride the horse until the ride is over.”

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.