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John Dingell is leaving under his own terms

Jack Lessenberry

As most of the world knows by now, yesterday, the longest-serving congressman in our nation’s history announced his retirement.

I wasn’t the least surprised. After a long lunch with John Dingell last fall, I had become convinced this was going to happen.

Ten years ago, I would have bet that he would die in office. In fact, that’s what he told me he intended to do. Told me more than once, in fact.

“Do you know your history, young man? He asked me long ago. “Do you know about John Quincy Adams?”

Yes sir, said I, and I think that pleased him.

Adams was the only president who returned to the House of Representatives after the White House. He served there till he collapsed and died on the floor.

For a long time, Big John intended to do the same. The House really was his home.

He first walked into Congress holding the hand of his father, a newly elected New Deal congressman, in 1933.

That was more than 81 years ago.

Dingell worked there as a page and an elevator operator when he was old enough, then won a hasty special election in 1955, after his dad, who he still idolizes, died of tuberculosis.

He’s never wanted to leave.

Every year, he would introduce a bill his father once did, a bill calling for universal health care coverage. Every year, his bill would be ignored. Then, four years ago, something close enough to his father’s dream actually passed.

The Affordable Care Act made Dingell very happy, but that was one of his last true happy moments.

Dingell’s Washington was a place where Republicans and Democrats might bash each other on the stump, but later would go out for a beer, sit down and figure out how to get a compromise they could live with.

He told me he always tried to get the strongest bill that was politically possible. His Washington was a place where politics stopped at the water’s edge, especially during the Cold War. And woe be unto any official of any administration who was called before his committee and tried to cover up waste, fraud or, abuse.

Late last summer I asked him if he would want a career in Congress if he were 29 now. “If I knew what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t,” he said. He told me that the quality he valued most was decency, and there is too little of that in public life today.

Yesterday, I realized that John Dingell became a member of Congress when I was three years old, and before he leaves, I will be technically eligible for Social Security. He is old enough to be my father. Yet in today’s world, we are a couple of old guys who still read words on paper.

"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."

Yesterday, watching his announcement, the words that spontaneously came into my head were from Shakespeare. Macbeth, in fact: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

John Dingell, who never lost an election, is leaving under his own terms.

Washington won’t be the same place without Dingell. In fact, it hasn’t been the place he knew and loved for some time. Which is part of why he is leaving.

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