John D. Dingell Jr., the longest-serving member of U.S. Congress in history, was remembered Thursday by Democrats and Republicans alike as a larger-than-life lawmaker who fought tenaciously for his positions yet maintained deep respect from colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“John Dingell was a stand-up guy,” former president Bill Clinton said. “He was an old-fashioned man who did things in an old-fashioned way that we should adapt for new times.”
Clinton was among five politicians who offered remembrances of the Michigan Democrat during a funeral Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington. Lawmakers from both parties filled the pews of the church in Georgetown where President John F. Kennedy once worshiped.
Dingell, who had complications from prostate cancer, died Feb. 7 at age 92. He was eulogized at a funeral Mass on Tuesday in Dearborn, Mich., by former vice president Joe Biden.
Those who offered remembrances Thursday praised Dingell for both his fierce devotion to his congressional district and his imprint on a vast array of legislation during his nearly 60-year tenure in Congress, which ended in 2015.
“He was Mr. Michigan,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who also praised the long-serving chairman of the House Energy Committee for working with lawmakers in both parties.
“Bipartisanship, he wrote the book. He really did. He nudged us all,” Upton said.
Upton served on the committee with Dingell for 24 years. After Upton took over the gavel, he oversaw the unveiling of Dingell’s portrait in the committee room.
The Mass served as a celebration of the late congressman’s beloved institution, the House, with more than a dozen pews on one side of the church filled with current members, with an occasional senator amid the crowd.
“Truly, a man of the House,” former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
Sitting in the front pew, across from Dingell’s widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), and Bill and Hillary Clinton, were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), other members of House leadership and the Michigan delegation.
Dozens of former House members filled the side pews of the church, and hundreds of former staff packed the church, many of whom have gone on to wield great clout themselves on Capitol Hill and presidential administrations.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a famed civil rights leader, recalled Dingell’s support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a move that got him into what Lewis called “good trouble.”
It threatened his reelection 10 years into his tenure. “John voted for the bill as an act of conscience,” Lewis said. “John did not run from his decision. He stood on the courage of his conviction.”
Boehner said Dingell was “a mentor to many of us who served in the Congress” and “was revered by Democrats and Republicans alike.”
In 2014, while still speaker, Boehner permanently changed the name of the Energy Committee’s hearing room to be named for Dingell, who served as chairman and ranking Democrat of the panel for almost 30 years.
Like others, he recalled Dingell’s bluntness, saying he was not “all honey and no vinegar.” Boehner characterized that as “tough love,” adding: “You always knew where you stood with Mr. Dingell.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) also touched on Dingell’s personality, saying he “never minced words, he never held back.”
Hoyer recalled that when he first arrived in Congress, Dingell had already been there for a quarter-century. They would go on to serve with one another for 33 years.
“Like many of the freshman at the time, I saw him as larger than life,” Hoyer said. “I never stopped looking up to him.”
Clinton said that in speaking with Dingell, one could get “your hide ripped off from time to time.” But Clinton called that part of “an honest friendship.”
He praised Dingell as “a world-class doer” and spoke about the profound influence on Debbie Dingell, who succeeded him in Congress four years ago.
The Clintons, longtime friends of the Dingell family, solemnly walked on either side of Debbie Dingell behind the casket carrying her late husband, into the start of the Mass and exiting.
Patrick J. Conroy, the House chaplain, served as the main celebrant of the Mass, delivering a homily in which he recalled Dingell’s deep Catholicism. One of the first to visit Conroy upon his installation as chaplain in 2011, Dingell bonded with the Jesuit priest and even after retiring would ask to visit Conroy.
The priest recalled walking from the Capitol to the office of Rep. Debbie Dingell and praying with her husband. John Dingell would wonder whether he had led a worthy life, Conroy said.
“Father, am I all right with the Lord?” Dingell asked Conroy.
In his homily, Conroy recounted Dingell’s work on civil rights and other legislation that reflected the Gospel’s Beatitudes, looking finally at Dingell’s casket to say yes.
“Recline now in the bosom of your Lord Jesus,” Conroy said.
Dingell, who as a House page in 1941 was present for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s war address to Congress after Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the Army at the age of 18, in 1944, and was slated to be part of an invasion of Japan until the nuclear bombs ended the war.
He will be buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.