When I nominated John Dingell for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 2014, I quoted President Lyndon Johnson signing Medicare into law. “History shapes men,” Johnson said, “but it is a necessary faith of leadership that men can help shape history.” Johnson was speaking about former President Harry Truman, who would shortly become the first Medicare enrollee. He could not have known that his words would apply so aptly to the representative from Michigan standing nearby.
When I arrived in Congress, John Dingell was already a legend. A 26-year veteran of the House at the time, he was revered as the architect of Medicare, as an author of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and as a forceful advocate for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I was among those who decided to pursue a life of public service in large part because of watching great leaders like John Kennedy and John Dingell accept the torch of leadership for a new generation in the 1960s. Shortly after arriving in Congress, I befriended John and Debbie Dingell. I have been blessed to call both dear friends ever since.
Already at that point, John had gained a reputation for championing working people and crusading for health-care reform—as well as for his sharp wit. He deployed that wit alongside his hallmark blunt style of communicating. In one instance, after being told that his advocacy for a strong civil-rights plank in the Democratic Party’s 1960 platform might alienate certain supporters, he declared: “I’ll hold the door for them—and slam it after them!” It speaks volumes of the man that in his 90s, even after retiring from office, he became a sensation on Twitter with his acerbic tweets and tell-it-like-it-is responses to President Donald Trump. The Twitter feed in heaven just got a lot more entertaining.
“Dad died, and his friends suggested I run for Congress,” John told an interviewer in 2005. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I did, and I was elected … I was assigned the last committee choices and the last office in the place, but I made quite a success out of it.”
He had a gift for understatement. For nearly six decades, the people of Southeast Michigan voted to send John back to Congress again and again, placing their trust in him to be their voice. His constituents loved him, and so did those of us who had the honor of serving with him in Washington.
Over the years, I watched John approach policy with a unique blend of ferocity and tact. He never missed an opportunity to help auto workers and their families, who returned him to Congress a record 29 times. Nothing would stand in the way of his responsibility, he believed, to put his constituents’ interests above all else. Sometimes that meant joining with Republicans against other Democrats. “Work with them when you can, and fight them when you have to,” he’d say about his colleagues across the aisle in a show of the type of pragmatism so rare nowadays in Washington. Throughout his career, he preached civility—and practiced it religiously.
Much will be written and said in the coming days about John Dingell’s achievements. From Medicare to the Affordable Care Act, from civil rights to Wall Street reforms, his legacy is undeniable. But as I look back on his life, I will see the man whose proudest titles weren’t congressman, chairman, or dean but son, husband, father, and grandfather—and U.S. Army veteran. He saw himself primarily as a citizen and public servant. Every year, he’d come through the Capitol carrying a box of paczki—the Polish filled donuts—reminding his friends of the pride he had in his immigrant roots. He’d hand them out to members and staff and visitors alike. That was classic John, finding such joy in the act of sharing what he loved. To all our benefit, he deeply loved this country and took such joy in fighting for its future to be brighter.
It is hard to say what Congress will be like without John Dingell watching over our shoulders. Even after he retired, we were blessed by his regular company as a congressional spouse, his wonderful wife and partner, Debbie, now serving the district that John, his father, and now his wife have represented for 86 years. He’d come back often, and I’d see him talking with the freshmen, much as he did with me when I arrived, and dispensing pearls of wisdom and wit. He’d make them feel like part of something larger than their own service, because in many ways John Dingell was the living connection between the New Deal and Great Society and Democrats’ 21st-century agenda.
Sadly for our country and for all of us who served with him, John will no longer be here to share his sage and frank advice as we move through the days of uncertainty and challenge ahead. On Wednesday, I traveled to Michigan to say goodbye. For two and a half hours, I sat by his bedside; Debbie sat nearby. Before I left, I leaned over and kissed John on his forehead and whispered: “I love you—that’s not just from me, but from all of your friends in the House.”
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