The first time I ever interviewed John Dingell, I made him cry.
At the time — March 1993 — he was at the height of his powers and had a well-earned reputation as the most fearsome, intimidating figure on Capitol Hill. His nickname was “The Truck,” which was a reference both to the fact that he stood 6-foot-3 and to the effect he had on those who stood in his way. (As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he had been known to slam down his gavel so hard it exploded.)
But that day, I was there to talk to him about his father. Then as now, health reform was the hottest topic in Washington, and Dingell was a key player in President Bill Clinton’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to expand coverage. But for Dingell, the cause was part of his DNA.
As Dingell began telling me about the figure whose unfulfilled dreams had shaped his own legislative career, he put his glasses down on the conference table at which we sat and began to wipe away tears. His massive shoulders shook with sobs. “Pop was not an ideologue; he was a philosopher,” he said of the late congressman John D. Dingell Sr. “He did a lot of thinking on things where you could make this country better, fairer.”
Dingell’s announcement Monday that he will retire at the end of this legislative term means that, come next January, for the first time since 1933, there will not be someone named John Dingell representing Detroit in the U.S. House of Representatives.
His father died in 1955 after 12 terms in the House. Dingell was elected to fill his seat and went on to become the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
The younger Dingell had watched his father’s career closely. A senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dingell Sr. drafted more than 100 amendments to the Social Security Act and wrote major portions of labor-union laws and banking regulations.
In 1943, when John Jr. was a 16-year-old House page, his father introduced the bill that would be considered his most radical move and the one that would be his unfulfilled legacy: a measure to provide national health insurance.
He was later joined in the effort by Sens. Robert F. Wagner (D-N.Y.) and James F. Murray (D-Mont.). They were called socialists and communists by their opponents, which included the powerful American Medical Association. But upon his death, his colleague John McCormack, a future speaker, said of Dingell Sr.: “He was always looking years ahead, and [was] a leader in charting the course for a better life for his fellow men.”
For decades, at the start of every legislative session, Dingell Jr. would reintroduce virtually the exact same bill, H.R. 16, which also happened to be the number of the Michigan congressional district represented by father and son.
As the Affordable Care Act neared passage in 2010, President Obama took note of the two men who had played such an important part in making it happen.
“I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health-care reform,” Obama said in his state of the union address that year. “And ever since, nearly every president and Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has attempted to meet this challenge in some way. A bill for comprehensive health reform was first introduced by John Dingell Sr. in 1943. Sixty-five years later, his son continues to introduce that same bill at the beginning of each session.”
Dingell’s belief in the importance of health care went back to the fact that his father would not have been alive without coverage provided by his union.
Raised in Detroit by Polish immigrants, Dingell Sr. “learned all about things like whooping cough and diphtheria and pneumonia and meningitis and other diseases which killed young people, all of the diseases and conditions which killed mothers during their childbearing years and left a lot of orphans, of whom he was one," his son recalled.
In 1914, John Dingell Sr. was struck by tuberculosis, which in those days was considered a death sentence. So he was put aboard a train to Colorado Springs. A policeman there found him lying on a mattress on the floor of a baggage car. “I’m sick,” the future congressman pleaded. “I'm going to the Union Printer’s Home. Can you take me there?” The policeman, lacking an ambulance, loaded him into a paddy wagon. And against his doctor’s prediction that he would live no longer than six months, he survived.
As I was interviewing Dingell Jr. in 1993, he showed me a small black-and-white photo of his father that he kept behind his congressional office desk. “Would I like to see Pop have his dreams come to reality? Yeah, I would,” he said of universal health care. “But I think the country really needs this.”