On Friday, Washington celebrated a milestone: After 57 years, five months, and 26 days, Rep. John Dingell, Jr., of Michigan has become the longest-serving member of Congress in history. When the Democrat won his seat in 1955 in a special election after the death of his father, who had previously held the seat, Dingell was a 29-year-old Georgetown graduate, only three years out of law school. Friday morning, the 86-year-old congressman spoke with The Atlantic's Steve Clemons at the Watergate in D.C., discussing his early days as a House page and decades as a member. But the veteran downplayed the length of his tenure, recalling advice from his father.
"It ain't how long, it is how well," Dingell said. "My time just means I've collected a check from the government, but the question is what I've done with that time."
Asked about the biggest news of the day, revelations about the extent and nature of U.S. government snooping on electronic communications, Dingell was circumspect. "It always worries me," he said. "Protecting our liberties is one of the great duties we in government have. It also is one of the most difficult balancing acts."
The congressman said he takes heart that the NSA intelligence gathering is overseen by both members of Congress, who are briefed on the programs, and the Judiciary, through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- though he added a note of caution. "Now am I going to tell you that the court is doing a great job? I have no way of knowing. The job's probably too big for any judge."
"You've got to protect people against excesses of power that one branch of government can commit," he said. His own experience serving in Congress at the time of Senator Joe McCarthy's Red Scare illustrated Dingell's concerns. "I was very ashamed of the McCarthy time," he said. Though he viewed the Wisconsin Republican as "one of the biggest scoundrels in society," he kept his portrait on his wall after he became a committee chairman as an "example of what not to do."
But the major theme of the morning was celebrating Dingell's record in Congress -- and it is a long record. Among the many achievements discussed, former legislative staffers and Dingell fans in the audience -- of whom there were many -- cited in particular the controversial Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977, which significantly strengthened air-pollution restrictions on companies, cars, and other potential polluters. Despite representing a district including auto workers and manufacturers, Dingell helped negotiate bipartisan support for the bill. He went on to serve as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on and off for a total of 16 years, working on similar environmental legislation covering everything from clean water and clean energy to land management and habitat protection.
The vote Dingell cherishes most, though? The Civil Rights Act of 1964. "For the first time, we addressed the problem of seeing that every American had full citizenship," he said. "I almost lost my job over that ... [but] I think that was the vote that really solved a problem that was eating away at the foundation of our democracy." Praising a long list of mentors and staff members he has worked with over time, he emphasized the sense of outrage needed to improve social justice for all.
Remarkably, Dingell said he thinks highly of every president he has served under -- or rather, with. "Sam Rayburn used to get really worked up, [saying], 'I never served under a damn one,'" Dingell chuckled. He described Gerald Ford as the most underrated president of his career, and found kind words for Jimmy Carter, both George Bushes, and Johnson, even as he bluntly listed their shortcomings as White House residents. Dingell even managed to find something nice to say about Richard Nixon. "He was what Churchill used to call Cromwell: a great, bad, man," he said.
But as National Journal's Charlie Cook pointed out, one of Dingell's most lasting contributions to history may have come from his days as a congressional page in December of 1941, just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Because I was a relatively senior page, I was given the responsibility of taking care of a fellow by the name of Fulton Lewis, Jr., who was a rather prominent, conservative newscaster and a very fine guy. I was told, 'Now Dingell, you see to it that he doesn't record more than the president's speech.' Well, I thought, you know, there's enough history that this is going to be important, so I let him go on [recording] the discussion. You can still hear some of that debate, and you kind of hear this peculiar hiss of the steel wire recordings."
"It was really a rather piddling role, but I had a little bit to do with a preservation of history," he said.