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Phil's column

Phil Power is founder and chairman
of the Center for Michigan.

Dingell is potent reminder of true public service in this hyperpartisan era

Let us now praise famous men,
and our fathers in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and were men renowned for their power,
giving counsel by their understanding,
and proclaiming prophecies;
leaders of the people in their deliberations
and in understanding of learning for the people,
wise in their words of instruction.
– Ecclesiasticus

Famous men, indeed.

The drum roll of this magnificent passage from one of the Old Testament’s Apocrypha came to mind while I was reflecting on events here and in Washington, D.C., honoring U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell’s remarkable service in Congress.

He entered the House of Representatives in 1955 upon the death of his father and has served, so far, 57-and-a-half years, making him the longest-serving member in history. He has cast more than 25,000 votes on issues small and large, including essentially all the major legislation of modern times, from the Civil Rights bill to the Voting Rights Act, from the Clean Water Act to the Clean Air Act.

He was either the chairman or ranking minority member of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 2008. He has long been renowned on both sides of the aisle for his legislative craftsmanship and his ability to get members with differing views to come together — a rarity in today‘s Washington.

In Michigan and in Washington, John Dingell has become a legend in his own time. And, as befits a nearly 87-year-old legend and consummate “Man of the House,” he is saddened and disappointed at what has happened to his Congress, which is now consumed by virulent partisan hatreds and incapable of performing the nation’s business effectively. Speaking at the Capitol last Friday, Dingell said too many members seem to have forgotten that “Congress means coming together. … There are limits on the fights we should make.

“ …. We are not masters of this nation. We are public servants. That’s the highest calling of them all.”

John Dingell is the iron man of the U.S. Congress, having served more than 57 years.

John Dingell is the iron man of the U.S. Congress, having served more than 57 years.

I’ve known John Dingell ever since I went to Washington in 1965 as a wet-behind-the-ears chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Paul H. Todd, Jr., a Democrat who was elected to the House in 1964, and then swept away again two years later. When the six-foot, four-inch Dingell walked into a room, it was like Moses parting the Red Sea.

Dingell was tough and he was direct. Back in the mid-1970s his friend, then-U.S. Rep. William Ford, was thinking about running for the U.S. Senate — and so was I. Dingell called me down to Washington. Sitting high behind his desk in his enormous office in the Rayburn House Office Building, he looked down at me, surrounded by the numerous elk and deer whose heads were mounted on his 20-foot high office walls.

“You are a fine fellow,” he told me. “But if you run against my friend, Bill Ford, you will lose. And you will find the consequences adverse for you for a very long time.”

I decided not to run. (Ironically, Ford didn’t either.)

He was fearsome in his pursuit of bureaucratic bumblers and those folk he figured were wasting taxpayer money. He would dispatch his ace committee investigators to nail malefactors around the nation. Famously, one was Stanford University, which had built a nice wine cellar by diverting federal money from research grants.

While I was serving as a regent of the University of Michigan, he unleashed his staff on the university for unspecified offenses. I wanted to try and get him to call off the dogs. I later got a copy of a message he sent to his guys: “Phil Power’s coming down to Washington to see me. Get me whatever you’ve got on the university before he gets here.”

When Michigan’s congressional seats were re-apportioned in 2002 following the 2000 census, Republicans threw Dingell into a new and unfamiliar congressional district then held by Lynn Rivers, a liberal Democrat from Ann Arbor. Aware of his lack of name ID and his reputation as less leftist than the district, Dingell was concerned.

Rivers decided to try to keep her seat, and took on Big John in the Democratic primary. But Dingell didn’t have to worry. A few old  friends, both Democratic and Republican, held “Friend-Raisers” for him that drew hundreds from both parties. Once they listened to his sane, sensible views of how to represent the district and work with colleagues in the Congress, they were sold. Dingell won going away and has never had a close election  since.
It’s a rare and wonderful thing for Michigan to be represented by John Dingell, a legend in his own time and a monument to the ways of properly governing together that our Congress must re-learn.

… all these were honored in their generations,
And were the glory of their times. …
Their posterity will continue forever,
And their glory will not be blotted out.
Their bodies were buried in peace,
And their name live for all generations.

Let’s hope Big John lives and works among us for some years still.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

1 comment from a Bridge reader.Add mine!

  1. Mike O'Connell

    Yes, John Dingell has accomplished much during his tenure and deserves to be honored for his contributions but like most people who are recognized for longevity in their positions he is not helping his legacy by “hanging on”. Mr. Dingell should have retired awhile back and certainly by 2008 when his own party recognized the need for a change.

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