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.