Somewhere out in the night, prosecutors may have been polishing indictments as a partisan city held its breath, but for a few hours top Democrats and Republicans tried -- more or less -- to put aside preemptive gloating and angst to celebrate the remarkable half-century career of "Big John."
Vice President Cheney and former president Bill Clinton headlined a gathering of nearly a thousand admirers who told stories about Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), 79, who last month became the third-longest-serving House member in history, and who in December will mark his 50th year in Congress.
As a representative of industrial suburban Detroit, Dingell had a hand in much of the signature civil rights, environmental, health, consumer and energy legislation of the era. Until the GOP toppled his party a decade ago, he was the brash, fearsome and sometimes imperious chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee -- the one, joked Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), with jurisdiction "over everything that moves, burns or is sold in the United States of America."
Any other week -- any other night! -- it would have been simply a lovely, if predictable, evening at the National Building Museum, where Democrats and Republicans made nice and spoke with genuine fondness of a legislative legend. But on this night, there was a pins-and-needles undercurrent.
Was Cheney's perpetual scowl-smile just a little more pronounced? Certainly it was as ambiguous as ever. His top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is enmeshed in the CIA leak investigation. The vice president read from prepared remarks -- and didn't he deliver his lines just a little distractedly?
"I guess John wanted me here to add a little charisma to the program," Cheney said woodenly, barely managing a smile, and barely getting a laugh.
Cheney, who left soon after his remarks, had asked to attend the tribute, according to Dingell's wife, Debbie, who helped plan it. But that was before he found himself near the center of a perfect political storm.
"It's turning out to be an odd week for this to be celebrated," Debbie Dingell said with admirable understatement the day before the event.
Clinton, who's weathered some political storms himself, told the crowd: "I was brought here to show that presidents come and presidents go, and John Dingell goes on forever.
"John Dingell has taught us the secret of living a full life and staying young: Figure out what you believe in and fight for it."
Dingell was 29 in 1955 when he stepped up to fill the seat of his father, John Sr., who died in office. Before that he was a House page, a Capitol elevator operator, a forest ranger and a lawyer. The seat has now been in the family for 72 years. John Sr. introduced one of the first bills for national health insurance, and every year since he has been in office, Dingell has done the same, in honor of his father and because he is passionate about the issue.
He will go down in congressional history both for his longevity and for being an archetypal example of that awesome species, the all-powerful committee chairman. From 1981 to 1995, he was the boss of Energy and Commerce, through which flowed about 40 percent of all House bills. He earned the nickname Big John not only for his 6-foot-3 stature but also for his clout.
Illustrative was a November day in 1983, the last day of committee business, when the committee members were debating the high-stakes issue of decontrol of some supplies of natural gas. Dingell was against the bill.
"John," said one of the bill's supporters, according to a Washington Post report at the time, "we've got the votes."
"Yeah," Dingell said. "But I've got the gavel."
And he banged the gavel and adjourned the committee for the year.
Last night former congressman Dan Glickman recalled the Dingell treatment. "I still remember when that big Dingell arm went around my neck on the floor, and I knew if I didn't vote his way, I would suffer serious consequences, or serious guilt," said Glickman, now president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.
But for Dingell, the art of successful legislating is not all about impressive displays of power. Especially when you're in the minority, it's also about building alliances, going out on a limb for people so they'll go out on a limb for you.
"He was a tough opponent, but he was even a better ally," said James Broyhill of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee when Dingell was chairman.
"The best thing about John Dingell is that he's still about the present and the future," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who sits in Dingell's old chairman's chair. "He's not resting on his laurels. He's building for the future on a daily basis."
None of last night's speakers -- who included House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) -- made reference to the scandal-in-waiting, unless the allusions were so encoded they flew right over our heads.
But there was chatter in the audience.
"He's a great man with a great legacy," Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said with one breath. In the next, he asked: "What do you hear from the courthouse?"
Might more bad news for the GOP help return the Democrats to power? "It's a good chance getting better all the time," Gordon said.
Former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta compared the night to a truce. "You can suspend your rivalries and deep-seated differences for a guy like [Dingell]," he said. "Tomorrow we'll go back to fighting."
Dingell, now the ranking minority member on the powerful committee, promised the crowd that he would regain his chairmanship. Pressed afterward on whether any indictments might facilitate his return to the majority, Big John wouldn't take the partisan bait. He smiled sagely and said simply: "Quite possibly."
In an interview published in ABC's The Note yesterday morning, however, he called the Bush White House "the worst and most incompetent administration since Coolidge."
Dingell hails from an era when friendships crossed political lines. He used to play paddle ball with a couple of Republicans named Don Rumsfeld and George H.W. Bush. Republicans and Democrats went hunting together. They'd socialize after work. They weren't always running back to their gerrymandered districts where they only have to appeal to their hardest-core base.
In the golden glow of the Building Museum after all the speechifying, with jazz and buffet food, Dingell and perhaps others wished it could be that way again.
"Let's hope this is what things can be," he said. "Let's hope this is what things will be."
Outside, the partisan city was waiting to exhale.
Vice President Cheney, who shared headliner honors with Bill Clinton, delivers his remarks.