John Dingell Was a Gift to America

This country is a better, more just, and cleaner place than it would have been without his service in Congress.

John Dingell
Rebecca Cook / Reuters

About the author: Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The last time I saw John Dingell was a few months ago, back at the home he shared with Debbie in Dearborn. My wife and I were in Michigan for another reason, but called to make sure we could pay a visit. John was in his study, seated in his big chair because of back issues, but he stood up when we arrived and gave us both hugs. We talked about issues large and small with him and Debbie for a few hours. The TV was on in the background, on a cable-news channel, and John had a legal pad next to him. He used it to jot down ideas for his next tweets. Every one of them—the tweets that gave him 264,000 followers, that made him master of the Twitter universe—came from his fertile, active mind, his wicked wit, and his passion for speaking out about justice, Congress, and the current presidency.

​Physical infirmities and advanced age aside, it was the same old John. He was warm, even effusive, toward us, asking over and over how we were doing, talking with incredible love and reverence about “the beautiful Deborah,” who made sure he was comfortable and cared for.

​My first formal encounter with John Dingell, more than 30 years earlier, was quite different. My colleague, friend, and collaborator Tom Mann and I had been working on a project to reform Congress, and had recommended major changes in the committee system, including removing some jurisdiction from the Commerce Committee, as well as the Ways and Means panel. We were summoned by the House committee chairs to explain ourselves. Tom and I sat on one side of a conference table—directly across from Dingell, Dan Rostenkowski, and a cigar-chomping Jack Brooks. Three powerhouses, feared by many, respected by all, and all pissed off by our temerity. Their power was shaped by their skills, knowledge, and personal force, but of course it was rooted in the important areas of public policy they controlled. And they were going to make clear to us naive academics that none of what we had proposed would happen.

​Tom and I were not naifs; we knew that tampering with jurisdictions was like recommending to parents that they give up one or more of their children. As the National Journal once put it, Dingell “claims jurisdiction over anything that moves, burns or is sold.” And we knew there was not much chance our ideas would sail through an appreciative House. We knew all three of these chairs and had very good relationships with them. They never raised their voices, issued threats—veiled or otherwise—or bullied us. But we came away knowing exactly who was in charge, and it was not us.

​By that point, I had watched the tough, strong-willed Dingell in action, especially performing oversight, for some time. John grew up in the House, serving as a page, helping his father’s long and admirable service, and then embarking on his own record-setting tenure. He believed to his bones in the importance of Congress, and in its power to protect the public interest and promote the public good. It mattered not a whit to him whether the presidents were from his own party or the other—they and their appointees and all executive officials would be held to account for any hint of miscreance or malfeasance. At times, as in the hearings surrounding the scientist David Baltimore and allegations of scientific fraud by a colleague of his, I thought he went overboard. But overall, his work, and that of a staff dedicated to him and the mission, were exemplars of what Congress should do and often does not.

​My ill-fated foray into altering his committee’s jurisdiction notwithstanding, my friendship with John, and my admiration for his service, deepened over the years. I saw a man who understood the legislative process, knew his colleagues well, and nearly always maintained good relationships with the Republicans on his committee, which were reciprocated and often resulted in bipartisan support for his initiatives. John knew how to build coalitions and make laws as well as anyone I have seen in almost 50 years of immersion in the process. But most important, he did so out of passion for social justice and a desire to create a better country and world.

And his accomplishments were staggering. When he announced his retirement, after surpassing in service every other member of the House and Senate in history, I wrote in The Atlantic, “Dingell has had a hand—a hugely constructive hand—in nearly every major advance in social policy over the past five-plus decades, including civil and voting rights, health, and the environment.” I was not totally in sync with him on all issues—I learned through experience that it was best not to talk about guns or auto emissions—but when it came to health policy or the environment or civil rights, he was a huge, important, and constructive force. This country is a better, more just, and cleaner place than it would have been without Dingell’s service in Congress. Which makes our current backsliding even more frustrating.

One more story. A couple of decades ago, I was on a plane with John and had my foot in a walking boot, because I’d badly sprained an ankle on the tennis court. I told him that I was a bit worried; I was supposed to travel to China the following week, with a trip scheduled to the Great Wall, and I did not know how I could walk the steps. A few days later, the receptionist in my office called me to say there was a guest in the lobby. I went up, and there was John Dingell, with a beautiful shillelagh carved out of mahogany that he handed to me. He said it had been his grandfather’s, and he had used it when he had his periodic knee problems but wanted to give it to me, since I now needed it more than he did.

I still have it, and treasure it. A gift from a wonderful friend, who himself was a gift to America.