June 6, 2013 at 9:01 am

Dingell: 'Do what's right and never be afraid'

Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley interviewed U.S. Rep. John Dingell about his nearly 57.5 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. The following are more edited excerpts:

Q. What three things are you proudest of during your career?

A. First of all, I think cleaning up the Detroit River and saving the wetlands. Medicare, which I worked very hard on. And the Affordable Care Act.

But there's one thing above all that I'm really proud of and that is what we did to resolve the question of civil rights for our people. The country was headed for some awful times when we did that. The 1965 vote was the hardest; that's when we took on voting rights. … It almost cost me my job. The Wall Street Journal said I had a one-in-50 chance of winning re-election after that vote.

But I had a friend say to me, "There are some things worth losing everything for." He was right, it was. The people supported me, even though a lot of folks in the media said they wouldn't. That gave me a lot of satisfaction.

Q. What did you learn from that experience ?

A. I learned something my old daddy taught me, and that is, "Son, do what's right and never be afraid." He'd say, "I take care of my people between the elections, and they take care of me at election time."

Q. Your dad was a congressman for 22 years. What would he say if he could know you were about to become the longest-serving congressman?

A. The first thing he'd say is, "Son, it isn't important how long. What's important is how well." I think he'd be very pleased.

My dad never told me what to do. I always knew what he wanted me to do. I always knew he wanted me to run for Congress, but he never said anything to me about it.

I don't keep dad's picture on the wall to tell me what to do. He taught me that while he was living. I keep it there as an example of what goes before me as I go about my business.

He loved the people here in southeastern Michigan. He was Polish and very fiercely proud of it. He was a little guy — 5-foot-8, and that's stretching it by 2 inches — and weighed 110 pounds soaking wet. But he had a voice that would fill the whole House chamber when he got going. He was a real idealist, one of the philosophers of the New Deal.

One of the pictures I have here is of (Franklin) Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, of which Dad was very proud. I keep that hanging on the wall to remind me of one of the things I have to do, because that's one of the great treasures of this country

Q. You've been one of the most powerful men in this country. How do you handle the responsibility of power?

A. When I was getting ready to be chairman of the Commerce Committee, I went over to see the parliamentarian of the House, Lou Deschler. And I said Lou, what should I do? And he said, "John, you've got to do two things. First, you've got to be fair. And second, you've got to appear fair." I worked very hard to do that. … . I think if you asked my Republican colleagues they would tell you we had a splendid relationship.

Q. What do we need to do today to build those working relationships?

A. The inability of the Congress to govern and compromise is one of the worst and most dangerous things about the Congress. …

One of the things I always had going for me was that I always had a wonderful man or woman to be the senior Republican on the committee that I was chairman of. I could always work with them, cut deals with them. Joel Broyhill, who was the senior Republican, said: "Dingell, we are going to have a situation because people are going to think my first name is Dingell because all the bills are coming out Dingell-Broyhill."

Q. What's been the most perilous time for the Republic during the 57 years you've been in Congress?

A. The period that I hope we're at the end of right now. When the auto industry was collapsing. When almost every city was in or headed for very serious economic trouble. When the members weren't getting along. And when we had people in the Congress saying they hoped the president failed. When the country was divided.

The failure of the auto industry was particularly troubling because that's one job in seven in the United States. There was no spirit of cooperation. It was a really awful time because it put the country at risk.

The system of government we have will only work if people will work together. If there is cooperation and compromise and consideration and conciliation. To hear and see the other side and recognize that what is on the other side is oft time of enormous value.Our job is not to have our way in the Congress. It's to see to it that Congress, according to its composition, works in the broad public interest.

A lot of times the hard thing that the Congress has to address is to function without a consensus, because a lot of times there is no consensus. I suspect that's one of our problems now. But it's also true that the Congress has another problem and that is that they don't really know what to do.

Q. Have you ever thought about getting out?

A. I've gone through some rocky times. I had a perfectly hideous divorce that took the wind out of my sails. I've had to raise four kids alone, and I've had some offers for a lot more money. But it was not what I wanted to do.

Beyond that, I love the job and there was always something I was working on that I wanted to do. And with God's help and a lot of good luck, I've been able to do most of what I set out to do. I'm not sorry I stayed.

Q. Does Congress still work?

A. It doesn't work for a bunch of reasons. First of all, the members don't work together. It doesn't work because of the damn bitter partisanship that's there. It doesn't work because there's no consensus in the country.

It doesn't work because there are a lot of districts where a fellow doesn't have to campaign, so he doesn't have to respond to the wishes of the people. It doesn't work because a lot of members don't understand the mores of the place, the customs, the traditions. When Dad went, there were two things folks could say about you. One was, "He's sincere." And that was a high compliment. The other was, "He is not sincere." And that meant … you could not be respected, that you were down there for some lesser purpose than doing your duty for the country.

Q. Who were the best speakers you worked with?

A. A bunch of them. John Boehner could be a good speaker, if he would get the support. The best of them all was Sam Rayburn. Right behind him was John McCormick. He had the heart of an Irish poet. A wonderful man. And then Tip O'Neil and Jim Ryan, who got himself in trouble and really shouldn't have.

Q. Who were some of the best presidents you've worked with?

A. Jerry Ford ranks very high. He was a gentleman and a decent guy, and a very good president.

Richard Nixon, surprisingly, ranks very high. He was what Churchill called Cromwell, a great bad man. And actually he wasn't bad. He was probably a paranoid schizophrenic. But he did some very great things.

Bill Clinton had a fault we don't need to discuss. But he was a good president, he cared. …

Q. What about the current president?

A. The current president, I'm very fond of him personally, and I think he's trying to do what's good. He has a serious problem, and that is his White House staff is not as good as they should be. They insulate him and isolate him from the public. A president has to know what's going on. …

It's fair to say he's done a good job and he's tried. … It's sort of like Sisyphus. He's had to roll the rock up the hill. … And there've been no significant scandals.

Q. What dangers do you see for the country?

A. If we don't address the budget deficit, we're going to have serious trouble. … But it's a danger that can be dealt with. The economy is doing much better. The deficit relative to the gross domestic product is shrinking significantly. …

I don't see the Congress or the people ready to follow this president the way they should. The consequences of that are much more serious than the dangers we face from outside the country or from the economy.

Q. How do feel about the influence of money on politics and policy?

A. It stinks. The first time I ran I spent $19,000 and I didn't know how in the name of common sense I was going to raise the money. But I did.

The worst race I ever had I beat a sitting member of Congress. That was the '64 election. I spent $35,000.

Ten years ago I beat Lynn Rivers (in the Democratic primary). She was backed by a lot of organizations that raised $6 million for her. I was working the phones constantly and having fundraisers. I was able to raise $3 million.

Senators spend their whole time raising money. It screws up the process, and even worse, the average citizen thinks the system has become corrupt and doesn't trust his government. He thinks money is buying the system. And if the situation keeps up, he's probably going to be right.

Q. What would you like people to say about your legacy?

A. There was a guy who was buried out in Kansas. On his tombstone he had the words: He did his damndest. … I'd like them to think I did a good job and that I was a guy who did the things for the country that needed to be done when he had to, and who had some remarkable successes, things like protecting Social Security, protecting consumers, cleaning up the waters of the Great Lakes and Rouge River, the conservation things I've done, the civil rights legislation.

Q. What's next for John Dingell?

A. I was looking forward to seeing the lovely Deborah (his wife) run for the Senate. ... I thought she would have been one fierce little candidate. I thought she'd get elected and be one hell of a United States senator. But she decided, probably wisely, that she didn't want to do it.

Q. Which Dingell will be on the ticket in 2014?

A. The lovely Deborah (his wife) and I sit down sometime late in February or early March of every election year, and we have a long talk in which we decide what we're going to do. … One of the things we think about is how much longer will we have the ability to do public service with the kind of enthusiasm and goodwill that our people deserve. We haven't yet had that talk. … I will tell you it's getting harder to run. It costs more and is getting nastier.

Q. Do you see Debbie in Congress eventually?

A. If Deb wanted to run, she's the only person I know who could beat me. She's more popular than I am. She's smarter than I am and better balanced, and she cares about people through and through.

Rep. Dingell talks about President Jimmy Carter, whom he supported, during an interview in his Capitol Hill office on June 12, 1979. / John Duricka / Associated Press