As have his junior colleagues, the dean of the United States House of Representatives has been much in the news lately.
Rep. John Dingell was confronted at a recent 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 is the dean of the House doing likening American citizens taking the time to engage their representatives to noose-wavers and skinheads?
Well, John Dingell knows all about ridiculing law-abiding citizens exercising their legal right to petition and assemble with impunity. Ask Ward Connerly.
More than six years ago, 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, was not only 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, Congressman 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."
If one did not know any better, one would think this is the sort of letter Martin Luther King, Jr., might have received from a southern governor in the 1950s or 1960s.
When you hear Congressman Dingell implicitly and explicitly compare contemporary citizens who "speak truth to power" to Klansmen and white supremacists, remember he knows well of what he speaks -- but not for the reasons he wishes you to think. Congressman Dingell hopes you will think he was on the frontlines fighting for racial equality, and that he will again man the ramparts for freedom against the kook right-wing who doesn't know any better.
The truth is altogether different. John Dingell is the man who in the 21st century told a black man to cease his community organizing and get the hell out of Michigan. This he did on Congressional stationery which also read: "prepared, published, and mailed at taxpayer expense."
It is entirely appropriate that John Dingell is the dean of the House of Representatives at this point in history. He is the living, breathing symbol of everything that is wrong with Congress. He has been in Congress for well over 50 years. He has had a lifetime stranglehold on his seat. He betrays a shocking detachment from reality combined with the conceit of dictating from afar what is best for "my people" as he calls those he purportedly represents.
John Dingell is the absolute last person who should be making any disparaging remarks against citizens vociferously scrutinizing their representatives. After 2010, officeholders like John Dingell who wield their seats like bludgeons upon the public may have seen the last of their time on Capitol Hill. But perhaps he will then be happy; he will no longer have to any longer endure outside agitators attempting to breach his personal fiefdom.
Matthew May was a Congressional intern for John Dingell during the summers of 1993 and 1994. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org