91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

John Dingell, longest-serving U.S. Congressman, dies at 92


John Dingell,  the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, died Thursday of cancer at age 92.

He is remembered for far more than his longevity.

A childhood in the halls of Congress 

John Dingell Jr. was six years old when his father, John Dingell Sr., won a district seat representing Michigan in the U.S. House. He told friends, "They were the biggest doors I've ever seen," upon entering the House chamber.

Dingell became a Congressional page at age 12. He received his bachelor's degree and law degree from D.C.'s Georgetown University.

His career took him back to Michigan. He was assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County when his father died in office in 1955.   

Dingell ran and won an election to fill the remainder of his father's term, and then ran again, and again.  He never lost an election.

An early advocate for health insurance and the environment

One of Dingell's first acts was to re-introduce his father's National Health Insurance Bill. He introduced it every new session of Congress after that until the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010.

He also became a champion for the environment.

John Dingell swearing in
Credit Wikicommons
John Dingell is sworn into Congress by House Speaker Sam Rayburn on December 13, 1955.

"His hand was on the steering wheel of virtually every significant environmental law in the country for six decades," says Lana Pollack, former state senator and now U.S. chairwoman of the International Joint Commission. 

Those laws include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

On the other hand, Dingell also was a strong advocate for the Detroit auto industry. That accounts for less-than-stellar opinions of his legacy among environmental groups.

He also was a board member of the National Rifle Association for many years, and he played a key role in Congress' failure to pass a number of gun control bills over the course of his career.

Becoming a powerhouse in the halls of Congress

Dingell had a number of nicknames. "Big John" was one, representing perhaps both his physical and political stature. 

He could be intimidating. If you said something he thought was stupid, he would let you know. 

He had a reputation for running people over, figuratively speaking, especially when grilling people he'd called to testify before committee.  Hence his other nickname, "The Truck." 

But Pollack says he didn't play hardball when it came to legislating.

Chairman Dingell in 1984
Credit House of Representatives Archives
Dingell in 1984, when he first served as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"He was a dealmaker," she says, "which meant that  he knew how to make compromises, he knew that he had to make compromises."

Dingell also had close friends across the aisle, like Republicans Fred Upton and John Schwartz.

Schwartz most remembers Dingell's kindness and willingness to mentor newcomers to the House.  

"John would always give you his honest opinion," Schwarz says, laughing. "I think sometimes people who met John thought he was a bit gruff. But I never thought he was gruff. John was just being John."

The auto advocate paid a price

In 2008, Dingell was ousted as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, largely because of his loyalty to the auto industry, which was fighting efforts to tighten fuel economy regulations.

"You could say he was loyal to a fault," says Pollack. "He stuck with his industry. It was very John Dingell. He stuck with his industry. He tried, I think, behind closed doors to convince them to change, but failing to do that, he wouldn't abandon them. And he paid a big price."

Dingell was 82 when he lost his chairmanship. Some people speculated he might retire. They were wrong. He kept on going, increasingly frail physically, but only physically.

He ran for election three more times. He also became a Twitter phenomenon, winning more than 250,000 followers for his acerbic tweets about everything from the Kardashians to politicians to the Detroit Lions, as well as jokes about his own advanced age.

He sat in a place of honor by President Barack Obama's side during the signing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. 

It wasn't a National Health Insurance bill, but a hoped-for first step.

The end of a very, very long career

Dingell became increasingly critical of Congress during his later years of service, because of its turn towards extreme partisanship.

"We have somewhat forgot the intention of the founding fathers that we were to work together, to compromise," Dingell said in an interview with Michigan Radio's Stateside late in his his career. "We're all in this thing together, and if we don't recognize it, we're going to ruin the greatest country – the most wonderful democracy."

John Dingell in 2016
Credit City of Dearborn
Dingell riding in the 2016 Dearborn Memorial Day parade.

He was not a man to brag. In that same interview, he speculated about the impact of his career in public service.

"You know, there's a tombstone out in Kansas, and it just says this: 'He done his damnedest.' And I hope my people will say I served them well, and frankly I did my damnedest, and I did a good job and I took care of the people I'm elected to serve."

Dingell retired on January 3, 2015, at age 87, relinquishing his seat to his wife, Debbie Dingell, who won a campaign to replace him.

His last tweet, in which he admitted being too weak to tweet on his own, but thanked people for their kind words and prayers, was made on Feb. 6, just one day before he died.

Dingell is survived by his wife, Debbie Dingell, and his four children.

Condolences pour in

When Dingell's passing was announced Thrusday evening, remembrances of his life and service came in from all corners of the country.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered flags to half staff Friday to honor Dingell, and issued a statement thanking Dingell on behalf of the people of Michigan.

“Today the great State of Michigan said farewell to one of our greatest leaders. John Dingell will forever be remembered as ‘The Dean’ of Congress not simply for the length of his service, but for his unparalleled record of legislative accomplishments. The Congressman’s grit, humility and humor taught us all that we can disagree without being disagreeable, while still finding common ground and working together to get things done. The people of Michigan owe John Dingell so much, from his brave service in World War II, to his leadership as Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and his crucial role in passing some of the most monumental laws of the past century, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act. We are a stronger, safer, healthier nation because of Congressman Dingell’s 59 years of service, and his work will continue to improve the lives of Michiganders for generations to come. I extend my deepest and most heartfelt condolences to Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and the entire Dingell family for their loss. In this divisive time, may we all draw wisdom and inspiration from the truly remarkable life of Congressman John Dingell, and may we all continue to learn from his example of selfless public service as we work to build a better future for our state.”

Former President Barack Obama acknowledged Dingell's leadership in legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Affordable Care Act.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
Related Content