“My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler,” the retired Democratic congressman from Detroit wrote in an op-ed The Post published shortly after his death. “We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately — we see much less of today.”
On Thursday night, shortly after the House voted to impeach him, President Trump proved that point, revealing once again that a black hole exists where his own character should be. In a rage-fueled rally in Dingell’s home state, the president waged an attack on the dead congressman and the grieving widow who now holds his seat in Congress. Trump even joked that Dingell might be watching them from hell. As appalling as the comment itself was the laughter it got from Trump’s fawning supporters.
The president’s statement was so vile that — for once — even Republican members of Congress condemned it and said he should apologize (which, of course, he didn’t).
Trump will never understand what Dingell understood, which is that true strength begins in the heart. Dingell, in his heyday, was perhaps the most intimidating figure in Washington. The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee muscled other lawmakers out of the way for turf; the prospect of a subpoena from his investigative subcommittee was so feared that some Washington law firms built a specialty practice they dubbed “the Dingell bar.” He was known to bang his gavel so hard it broke.
Dingell fought hard, but it was for the interests of his blue-collar constituents and for the causes that mattered to him. Chief among them was making sure people had health care, the unfinished business left behind by his father, a New Deal-era congressman also named John Dingell.
“Pop was not an ideologue; he was a philosopher,” John Jr. told me the first time I interviewed him in 1993. “He did a lot of thinking on things where you could make this country better, fairer.” The younger Dingell was a 16-year-old House page in the early 1940s when the elder one introduced legislation to provide national health insurance. For that, he would hear his father called a socialist and a communist. As he recounted to me the story of his father’s remarkable life — how he would have died as a young man of tuberculosis had he not had union-provided medical care — John Dingell Jr. broke down in tears, his massive shoulders shaking with sobs.
After Dingell was elected to fill his father’s seat upon his death in 1955, he reintroduced that legislation every session. And it was with special satisfaction that he later heard his father’s name invoked as the Affordable Care Act neared passage in 2010.
“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,” Barack Obama said in a joint address to Congress 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.”
The other great passion in Dingell’s life is the person who now holds that seat. He referred to her as “lovely Deborah,” never losing his obvious delight — and on some level, I suspect, his surprise — that this vivacious and sharp woman 27 years his junior had chosen him as her life partner. Many years ago, I ran into him in a Capitol hallway after a congressional recess and asked how he was doing. “Great,” Dingell told me with a sly smile. “I just spent a week with a beautiful woman.”
On Thursday night, Trump lashed out at Debbie Dingell for voting for his impeachment, an act he called ungrateful after he authorized military support for her husband’s services in February. Typically for Trump, everything, even a decent gesture, is a transaction.
Debbie Dingell replied in a tweet: “Mr. President, let’s set politics aside. My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
Trump is making it harder for the country to heal as well. As he faced his death, Dingell wrote: “I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.” It is indeed a big responsibility — one that is apparently too much to expect of the small man who sits in the Oval Office.