John Dingell: 20,997 Days in Congress, and Counting
A Thousand Days was the poignant title of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s book about the brief administration of John F. Kennedy. If a historian were to write such a book about the never-ending congressional career of Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the title might be a clunky but appropriate 20,997 Days...and Counting!
At 12:01 AM Friday, Dingell became the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress. He was elected on December 13, 1955, to replace his father, who had died in office (and who had held the seat since 1933). While Dingell has not announced his intention to seek what would likely be another breezy re-election, he has not ruled it out, either.
Dingell was once my congressman. I was a summer intern in his district office in Dearborn, Michigan in 1993, and in his Washington, D.C., office in 1994. The duties were the usual for interns -- answering phones, writing constituent letters, and running down to the House cafeteria to fetch the boss a BLT, cookie, and Nantucket Nectar for lunch.
Dingell was kind to me. One night I was tapped to drive him to an event in the district. When I offered to use my car, he said, "We'll use my gas." In retrospect, it was probably my gas anyway, but I suppose it's the thought that counts. Dingell's staffers were, to a person, great -- supportive, encouraging, and friendly.
Dingell once gave me an hour of his time during which he was quite frank about the stresses of political life on families. I asked him why he never ran for the Senate. He replied in all earnestness "I'm not interested in a demotion."
That was a very important point. Dingell was at that time chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House. He had slowly climbed the old leadership ladder and wielded great power and influence. Nearly half of all legislation in the House passed through his committee. It was said that when someone once asked him what that committee's jurisdiction was, he pointed to a photograph of Earth.
Longevity and entrenched power are not, or at least should not be, republican traits. We have ignored this at our own peril. Entrenched power can and does lead to an arrogance among our representatives that is unbecoming of any republic, particularly the American republic as it was envisioned by our founders. Dingell is no different. This was explicitly demonstrated just a few years ago, and it is indicative of the contempt in which we vassals are held by our betters in Washington.
In 2009, Dingell was confronted at a town hall meeting in Romulus, Michigan, by a number of citizens outraged over his support for nationalized health care.
Rather than contemplate the meaning of all this passion, Congressman Dingell fanned the flames of discord by appearing on MSNBC to say that such protest reminded him of white supremacists and Klansmen "running around" in a tizzy, upset with his vote for civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
What was the dean of the House doing, likening American citizens taking the time to engage their representatives to robed noose-wavers? Dingell knew all about ridiculing law-abiding citizens exercising their legal right to petition and assemble with impunity. Ask Ward Connerly.
Mr. Connerly, a native of California, helped lead an organized signature drive to place the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a proposition to end racial discrimination and preferences. The proposal was placed on the November 2006 state ballot. The purpose was to finally force public institutions such as the University of Michigan to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial preferences in hiring and admissions. This effort met with success: the proposal, which amended the state constitution, not only was placed on the ballot, but passed 58 percent to 42.
As can be imagined, such efforts made by people like Mr. Connerly and others enraged the left. Rather than implement their brand of discrimination by judicial fiat, the left would be powerless when receiving the judgment of the people. So the left did what the left does best: insult, smear, and ridicule the citizen-activist. The most prominent member of the Michigan congressional delegation led the way.
Congressman Dingell sent a letter to Mr. Connerly, dated July 9, 2003. The letter did not politely disagree with Mr. Connerly. It did not make a persuasive, logical counterargument to the issue at hand. Instead, the white Democrat power-broker ordered the black man exercising his constitutional rights to get lost.
On presumptuous behalf of the people of the entire state of Michigan, and on taxpayer-funded stationery, Dingell wrote in the manner of the staunchest segregationist:
"... go home and stay there. We do not need you stirring up trouble where none exists.
"We have no need for itinerant publicity-seekers, non-resident troublemakers or self-aggrandizing out-of-state agitators. You have created enough mischief in your own state to last a lifetime.
"Your brand of divisive racial politics has no place in Michigan, or in our society...Go home and stay there, you're not welcome here."
I submit that had a white conservative of similarly entrenched power said such vile things to a black civil rights leader, the longevity in question would be how long he was ostracized from "polite" society and public office. That Dingell was not run out of office in the subsequent election speaks to apathy in his district bred by the advantages of incumbency and the accumulation of power. That trait is all too common throughout the country and has directly led to the erosion of the sovereignty of the people in favor of our federal lords.
Dingell has been and will be honored in the media and by his peers for his longevity and historic milestone in a riot of bipartisan backslapping. Socialite of the House John Boehner will host a celebration in the Capitol for him next week. But in these days when the political class increases its grip exponentially, Dingell's hold on one district for nearly 60 years is not something to toast. It is a mark of decline, and something of which we should all be ashamed.
Matthew May welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.