Dingell’s death Thursday at age 92 ends one of the longest and most eventful stints in American public life. Dingell began hospice care at home in Michigan earlier this month, a year after receiving a prostate-cancer diagnosis. His wife and successor in Congress, Debbie Dingell, told The Detroit News that he remained feisty to the end. “He is John Dingell. He is in charge. Ordering everyone around. Doing it his way,” she said on Wednesday, noting that he even continued to dictate missives for his unexpectedly funny Twitter feed.
If the renown and power of the Dingell family do not match those of dynasties like the Bushes and Adamses, its longevity impresses. John Dingell Sr. was elected to the House in 1932, and stayed in the seat until his death in 1955. John Jr. was not yet 30 at the time. He had enlisted in the Army when he turned 18 and was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, a decision he later said saved his life. He ran in the special election to succeed his father and won. Then he ran again in 1956, and every two years after that until 2014, when he decided to retire, calculating (correctly) that Democrats were unlikely to retake the majority that year. So instead, his wife ran, and she has occupied the seat ever since. Because she’s nearly three decades his junior, Debbie could keep the string of Dingells in the House—85 years and counting—going for years to come.
Dingell Sr. was a die-hard New Dealer and Roosevelt supporter, and his son continued that legacy as an old-school social democrat. The father was a particularly avid proponent of universal health care, and his son worked toward that goal over the course of his career, introducing his father’s bill every Congress, even when the idea was dismissed by other Democrats. In the 1960s, he helped push Medicare and Medicaid, and he fought Republican efforts to curtail or privatize the system. When the ACA passed in 2010, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was presiding over the chamber, used a gavel loaned to her by Dingell—who’d used the same one when he oversaw the 1965 passage of Medicare.
Still, Dingell told my colleague Steve Clemons in 2013 that his proudest vote was for 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.” (Dingell was perhaps exaggerating: His share of the vote did tumble from 1964 to 1966—from 73 percent down all the way to 63 percent.)
There are advantages to serving for nearly six decades in the House: the sense of being an institution; the respect of colleagues; seniority; and of course the title of “dean of the House,” which Dingell held for a record 20 years—though he also argued, “It ain’t how long, it is how well.” The disadvantage is that one risks outliving one’s era. By the time Dingell left the House, he seemed somewhat out of step with the Democratic Party.