U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan announced he was leaving Congress today and decried the toxic partisanship of Washington. But even in 2004, when I interviewed him just before the presidential election, the Democratic lion didn’t shy from placing blame for the auto industry’s mess at the feet of the Republican occupying the White House, George W. Bush.
“The job loss is enormous,” Dingell told me in an interview on Bloomberg Radio, citing “better than 200,000 jobs gone out of Michigan since Mr. Bush came in.”
Loyalty to party and Michigan’s troubled auto industry made him friends and enemies alike and will undoubtedly go down as major legacy points. After a 58-year run, Dingell, 87, who uses a cane these days, is walking away at the end of his current term as the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history.
To put Dingell’s political leave-taking in perspective, Barack Obama wasn’t born until six years after Dingell took over the family business, succeeding his dad as a Michigan Democrat in 1955. Veterans of the D.C. scene says those were simpler, friendlier times, when a day in the trenches with your foe ended with a beer or something stronger at the pub. As if to underscore the point, Dingell told the Detroit News that the job had become “obnoxious,” reflecting the bitter acrimony that surrounds most, if not all, bipartisan political battles these days.
“This is not the Congress I know and love,” he told the News.
Dingell joins other longtime House members who announced their retirements recently, including Democrats Henry Waxman and George Miller of California. Veteran Republicans planning to leave next year include Doc Hastings of Washington state and Frank Wolf of Virginia.
Throughout his tenure, Dingell has sided squarely with his party on big issues, voting for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and using his clout in presiding over the passage of Medicare. The gavel he used on that occasion still sits on his desk, the New York Times reported. President Obama, in a statement, praised Dingell as “an original author of the Affordable Care Act” who “helped give millions of families the peace of mind of knowing they won’t lose everything if they get sick.”
His biggest claim to fame was the clout he wielded as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee when his party controlled the House. It was there he made his bones as a gruff, if irascible, power broker.
Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who considers Dingell a friend, says he was fully aware of the criticisms levied against the Michigander but that he had never run across a politician more dedicated to the interests of the investor.
“He was not swayed by the enormous power of lobbyists,” Levitt told me. Dingell on many occasions would hold the SEC’s “feet to the fire,” says Levitt, who serves today as a director of Bloomberg LP.
And while admirers have fawned over his longevity—President Bill Clinton warmly said presidents come and go but Dingell goes on forever—critics have savaged his style. In a Forbes online post last year, contributor Henry I. Miller described Dingell as an imperious bully “who consistently opposed worthy environmentalism and staunchly defended the interests of dysfunctional Detroit automobile manufacturers.”
Dingell’s wife of more than 30 years, Deborah, has served as an auto industry executive and close adviser to her husband. She turned down a chance to run for the U.S. Senate in April. Now the Detroit News reports she may make a bid to replace her husband.