Former Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who holds the record for the longest service in Congress, died Thursday at the age of 92. Dingell was elected to his first term in 1955 during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, and he retired in 2015 when Barack Obama was in the White House. During his long tenure, Dingell rose to become one of the most powerful committee chairs in congressional history, though he would end up losing his gavel on the Energy and Commerce Committee twice. In his last years, Dingell became known for his entertaining tweets, where he mocked Donald Trump, celebrities, the poor performance of his favorite Michigan sports teams, and himself.
Dingell was the son of John Dingell Sr., who narrowly won a Detroit-based House seat in the 1932 Democratic landslide ushered in by Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression. The younger Dingell followed his father to Washington a few years later when he became a House page in 1938. He was even on the floor on Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, when Roosevelt gave his “Day of Infamy” speech that called for a declaration of war against Japan in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous day.
Dingell remained a page for a few more years, but in 1944, after he turned 18, he was drafted into the Army. The future congressman recounted in a 2006 interview that he “did an array of unimportant things in the military,” but that he was supposed to be among the first American soldiers to take part in the planned invasion of Japan in 1945. Dingell said that he “had my orders to go when [President Harry] Truman dropped the bomb on the Japanese, and that ended World War II.”
Dingell was discharged the following year and attended college at Georgetown. During those years, Dingell returned to Congress, where he supervised elevator operators. He went on to get his law degree, also at Georgetown, and clerked for federal Judge Theodore Levin, an uncle of Dingell’s future Michigan congressional colleagues, Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Sandy Levin.
Rep. John Dingell Sr., who had made a name for himself by continually, but unsuccessfully, pushing for national health insurance, died in office in 1955. The younger Dingell, who was 29 at the time, ran in the special election to succeed his father in a seat that was located entirely within the city of Detroit. In the Democratic primary, Dingell faced the Rev. Charles A. Hill, a prominent African-American Baptist leader and civil rights figure, as well as Detroit City Councilor Eugene Van Antwerp, a former mayor. Dingell ended up beating Hill 44-28, and he had no trouble winning the general election for this reliably Democratic seat. Dingell would easily win his rematch with Hill the next year 66-29.
During his early years in Congress, Dingell was appointed to the committee that would later become known as the Energy and Commerce Committee, which he would eventually lead. In 1957, at the start of his first full Congress, Dingell reintroduced his father’s bill for universal healthcare, something he would do at the beginning of each of the many Congresses he served in until the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. Dingell also championed the 1964 National Wilderness Act and legislation to protect the wetlands.
Perhaps most importantly Dingell, like his father, was a supporter of civil rights. The congressman co-sponsored the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was the first piece of civil rights legislation to become law since Reconstruction, and he likewise backed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
At the time, Dingell represented a seat that, according to a contemporary Time article, was 46 percent black. However, mid-decade redistricting would throw him into the same predominately white district as fellow Democratic Rep. John Lesinski, and the two faced off in a very nasty 1964 primary. Lesinski, who, like Dingell, was the son of a Polish-American congressman, was the only Northern congressman in the Democratic Party to oppose the Civil Rights Act, and he was known for doing everything he could to keep African Americans from moving into Dearborn, his political base.
Lesinski had no qualms about using racist appeals to try to win the primary. He declared during the campaign that “a 35-year-old man was set upon and stabbed by four colored fellows. He was stabbed to death,” and accused the media of trying to hush up the alleged attack. Dingell argued that Lesinski and his allies were trying to raise “the bogeyman, telling people that if I’m elected there will be two Negro families on every block in Dearborn.”
Lesinski’s old House seat made up about 80 percent of the new district, but Dingell had the support of the influential United Auto Workers. Dingell would also recount decades later that he argued that the seat “needed representation which could do something, and I showed I could and did—and that he could not and did not,” and that only one of the two men “could make an intelligent and understandable speech.” Dingell added that when he and Lesinski would appear together “he would support my view by showing he couldn’t be understood when he talked.” Dingell also said that he knew and had aided most of the district’s local elected officials, which made a difference. Ultimately, Dingell would win 55-45, and he would not have another competitive race for another 38 years.
During his next years in Washington, Dingell would continue to champion environmental laws, and he presided over the House when it passed Medicare in 1965. However, Dingell took much more conservative stances on other issues, including eventually, the environment.
He was an ardent ally of the National Rifle Association and spent years on its board of directors (though he would occasionally defy the organization during his career). In 1972, Dingell successfully made sure the Consumer Product Safety Act, which created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, did not have the authority to oversee firearms. Dingell also supported the Vietnam War until 1971, far longer than many fellow Democrats. Additionally, Dingell long opposed abortion rights.
And while Dingell would say in 2013 that his vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act was his proudest moment in Congress, he would adopt a more conservative stance on civil rights in the 1970s. Dingell opposed using busing to integrate public schools, even sponsoring a successful House amendment in 1973 to prevent federal money from buying gas “for the transportation of any public school student to any school farther than the public school closest to his home.”
Dingell was also a key ally of the United Auto Workers and Michigan’s auto industry, and it frequently brought him into conflict with much of the Democratic Party. In 1976, Dingell tried to delay the tougher exhaust standards that were to take effect with the Clean Air Act, and he would later fight against proposals to require airbags in cars. Dingell clashed frequently with California Rep. Henry Waxman, a fellow Democrat and ally of environmentalists. However, in 1989, the two reached an agreement for setting a timeline for strengthening car emission standards.
Dingell became chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 1981, and he would make good use of his gavel over the next 14 years. Dingell became one of the most powerful chairs in history, and his committee ended up handling 40 percent of all House bills. Dingell, who informed agencies they were under investigation through what became known as “Dingell-grams,” used his post to uncover fraud and waste, including an infamous $640 toilet seat purchased by the Pentagon.
Dingell’s inquiries also led to the resignation of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1983 for conflicts of interest, as well as the departure of Stanford University’s president in 1991 for overcharging the government for research costs. Another Dingell investigation brought about the criminal conviction of Mike Deaver, who was one of President Ronald Reagan’s top advisers, for lying under oath about his lobbying. But much of the science community was unhappy with the congressman and jeered him as “the science police.”
Dingell became the House’s longest serving sitting member, or “dean” of the House, in early 1995. That new title came with an unwelcome responsibility, though, since it was his job to swear in the first Republican speaker in 40 years. Dingell, who had joined the House a little less than a year after the last Republican speaker had given up his gavel in 1955, swore in Newt Gingrich, an event that also meant that Dingell was no longer an all-powerful committee chair.
In 2002, Dingell would once again face a primary battle against a fellow Democrat after the GOP drew a congressional map that pitted him against Rep. Lynn Rivers. Nancy Pelosi, who was the House minority whip at the time, supported Rivers and helped her raise money from environmentalists and supporters of gun safety and abortion rights. Dingell, by contrast, once again had the support of the UAW and the NRA. Dingell won 59-41, but his frayed relationship with Pelosi would have consequences.
Dingell became chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee again in 2007 when Democrats won back the majority, but he didn’t enjoy the same clout he once had. The day after Barack Obama won the 2008 election and Democrats increased their majorities in Congress, Waxman called Dingell to tell him he would challenge him for the committee chairmanship.
While Pelosi, who was speaker by this point, didn’t officially take sides, her allies were very much behind Waxman. Waxman argued that Dingell was too slow to address global warming; Dingell appealed to moderates and conservatives and blasted his rival as an “anti-manufacturing, left-wing Democrat.” Waxman prevailed, though he gave Dingell the honorary title of chairman emeritus.
Despite this loss, Dingell still remained influential. He helped secure the multibillion dollar bailout for the American auto industry in late 2008, and he not only was a key supporter of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, he was at the White House ceremony where Obama signed the legislation into law. That year, the congressman also had his first—and only—competitive general election contest. Team Blue worried that Obama’s unpopularity in the Midwest would drag down even Dingell, so much so that former President Bill Clinton held a rally for him ahead of Election Day. Ultimately, while 2010 proved to be an awful year for Michigan Democrats, Dingell won 57-40.
In 2013, Dingell overtook the late West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd and became the longest-serving member of Congress of all time. (Byrd still holds the record for Senate longevity.) The following year, Dingell announced he would retire. Debbie Dingell, the congressman’s wife and an influential figure in state Democratic politics, had no trouble winning the primary to succeed him. During his last year in Congress, John Dingell also developed a surprising Twitter following through messages like, “Staff has now informed me of what a Kardashian is. I'm only left with more questions.” (Us too.)
Dingell’s career ended in early 2015, but happily, his tweets didn’t. Among his many gems: “I fought for universal healthcare for 89 yrs and forgot to slip in one damn line requiring super-long phone chargers during hospital stays,” and, “Feeling old because you remember when Pluto was a planet back when you were younger? I was born before they even discovered the darn thing.” Dingell made plenty of jokes about pop culture, sports, and himself, but he especially delighted in taking aim at Republicans and especially Trump. The Detroit Free Press has collected some of his best tweets.
Dingell, who continued to snark on social media well into the week of his death, also left some words of wisdom last month. He tweeted; “As this Congress begins, a bit of advice for new Members that I received back in 1955: For the next six months you're going to wonder how the hell you got here,” and added, “Then one day you'll come on to the House floor, look around, and wonder how in the hell all the other fools got here.”