On Thursday, after news broke that Dingell had died at age 92, there was a collective sense of mourning on the site where he had developed a cult following for his self-effacing humor, charmingly grumpy observations and sarcastic political commentary.
“I know he was an icon, a legislative giant,” wrote CNN commentator Ana Navarro. “I know he leaves behind a meaningful legacy. I know his loss is heartbreaking for Debbie and their loved ones. But man, I am really going to miss @JohnDingell’s tweets.”
Dingell’s unexpected journey to social media celebrity began in July 2014, when a since-deleted tweet accidentally sent by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water invited followers to download “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” from the iOS App Store.
“I’m the last original author of the Clean Water Act, but I have no idea who/what a Kardashian is and I rarely play games,” the congressman, then 88, replied. “You OK, @EPAwater?”
The next day, he posted: “Staff has now informed me of what a Kardashian is. I’m only left with more questions.”
Before that point, the 29-term congressman had posted photos of himself with Cookie Monster and joked about being so old that he didn’t even buy unripe bananas anymore. But the viral Kardashian exchange cemented his fame as possibly the only politician who knew how to have fun online and prompted BuzzFeed News to name him “probably the best person on Twitter.” Afterward, Dingell, who had announced that he planned to retire at the end of 2014, began to share his thoughts on the platform regularly, weighing in on subjects ranging from “Sharknado 2” (“So it’s a tornado full of sharks? That’s what the entire film is about?”) to the 313th anniversary of Detroit’s founding (“No, I wasn’t there at the time”).
Dingell’s “mastery of Twitter showed it can be done at any age,” South Bend, Ind., mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg wrote on Thursday night, as fans joked that they were deleting their accounts now that the site’s best user, who had over 262,000 followers as of Friday morning, had passed away. “Now…it is official…there is no joy left in Twitter,” wrote MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle.
During his retirement years, Dingell regularly turned to Twitter to express his outrage with President Trump and the Republican Party. “Burn this entire administration down,” he tweeted in January, after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that he didn’t understand why furloughed federal workers needed to visit food banks during the government shutdown.
But rather than hurl shrill, impassioned invective at Trump and his associates, Dingell typically preferred to crack jokes at their expense. When Melania Trump showed up to tour a shelter for migrant children in her now-infamous Zara jacket, his response was to tweet, “Boy did I pick an awkward day to wear my jacket with ‘Be Best’ scribbled on the back.”
“Safe to say @realDonaldTrump has had the least productive first 100 days in office,” he wrote in April 2017. “Except maybe Harrison, who died of pneumonia on Day 31.”
Speaking to WDIV in Detroit last August, Dingell said that the wry commentary reflected his serious concerns about the direction that the country was heading. “I’m scared to death,” he said. And yes, he confirmed, it was really him tweeting.
“John Dingell can say, ‘When you’re 92 you can get away with saying a lot of things that the rest of us can’t,’” his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who was elected to his seat in Congress after he retired, told the station.
When the longtime congressman wasn’t taking shots at politicians, he could often be found venting his frustrations with the Detroit Lions and the Michigan Wolverines, his two favorite teams. He also displayed a more whimsical side, repeatedly referencing his love of Hostess cupcakes and cracking jokes about his advanced age. “Feeling old because you remember when Pluto was a planet back when you were younger?” he quipped in 2015. “I was born before they even discovered the darn thing.”
Whether he was referencing the latest meme or perfectly deploying the deadpan tone popularized on the site (“Always great to interact with folks here on Twitter dot com,”) nothing about Dingell’s Twitter presence matched what you might expect of a retired congressman who was first sworn into office in 1955. He frequently dunked on other users, calling astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson a nerd and advising him to lighten up and mocking journalist David Corn for complaining about issues with his AOL email account. And despite his initial confusion about the Kardashians, he eventually revealed himself to be well versed in pop culture.
Though most Twitter users are many decades younger than him, Dingell’s dry sense of humor was a perfect fit for the platform. As it turned out, the persona that he had crafted — a cantankerous old man despairing at the state of the world — had a lot in common with the millennials tweeting, “lol everything is terrible."
But unlike, say, the individual behind the Nihilist Arby’s parody account, Dingell also turned to Twitter to express sincerely held convictions. “I signed up to fight Nazis 73 years ago and I’ll do it again if I have to,” he wrote in August 2017 after a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville ended in deadly chaos. “Hate, bigotry, & fascism should have no place in this country.”
“In a way, Twitter lets us behind the curtain, and he did it in an authentic and enjoyable way,” Erin Meyers, an associate professor of communications and journalism at Michigan’s Oakland University, told the Detroit News on Thursday. “You didn’t feel like he was grandstanding or putting on an act like others. He had a Michigan-ness about his tweets. He kept it real.”
On Wednesday evening, Dingell posted his last tweet before succumbing to complications from prostate cancer.
“The Lovely Deborah is insisting I rest and stay off here, but after long negotiations we’ve worked out a deal where she’ll keep up with Twitter for me as I dictate the messages,” he wrote, referring to his wife. “I want to thank you all for your incredibly kind words and prayers. You’re not done with me just yet.”