February 25, 2014 at 9:01 am

When to retire the hardest of calls for John Dingell

John Dingell campaigns for office in 1964. He is the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. (AP)

Even approaching 88 years old, even with a back that won’t allow him to stand straight, even with a bad leg that keeps him in constant misery, the decision for John Dingell to let go wasn’t easy.

I spent Sunday evening with Dingell as he prepared himself to go before the people of the 12th District to announce his retirement as their representative to Congress. The old big game hunter looked as if the bear had finally gotten a hold of him. He was worn out. His eyes were dull. Everything about him seemed slower, more painful than I’m used to seeing.

And yet even then, with the calls made to family and close friends, with his speech written, with the point of no return all but crossed, Dingell was still wrestling.

“I could do another two years,” he says as we sit in the den of his Dearborn home, twin stacks of World War II books rising from the floor next to his easy chair. “I could do it well enough to satisfy my people.”

But then, after a moment’s reflection, “I couldn’t do it well enough to satisfy me.”

That’s how it’s gone for two months. Back and forth, weighing the reality of his infirmities against the instinct that he’s still got some fight left in him. Friday, he was certain of what he would announce. Saturday, he was second-guessing.

The struggle has taken its toll, mentally and physically.

The difficulty in leaving, even though Dingell at last accepts the time has come, reflects the passion he still feels for public service.

It’s an intensity that has kept him going for nearly 59 years in the House. I remember driving into Washington, D.C., with him a few years ago, after a hunting trip. He stopped talking when the Capitol came into view.

“I always get a thrill when I see that dome,” he said.

But he’s not so enamored of today’s Congress, an institution he describes as “obnoxious” because of its bitter partisan divisions.

As he reminisced Sunday evening, he talked of more collegial times, when Congress lived up to the meaning of its name: coming together.

He says, “When (Republican) Joel Broyhill was the ranking member of Energy and Commerce, he used to say to me, ‘Damn it, people are starting to think my first name is Dingell.’ That’s because we passed so many bills together.

“There was an understanding then that though each side started far apart, the process would ultimately bring us to the middle. That’s gone now. There’s a ‘win at all costs’ mentality.”

A Democrat, Dingell tags Republicans for most of the blame, particularly “the tea party haters.” But he has plenty of venom as well for “those damned environmentalists” who made his life miserable as he fought for the automobile industry.

“Everyone today is convinced that they’re the only ones who talk to God,” he says.

He’s fed up. Instead of energizing him as it once did, he now finds Congress draining.

And yet he’d like nothing better than to see his wife of 33 years, Debbie Dingell, replace him in the House.

“She’s awfully smart,” he says. “She’d do some good down there.”

Still, he worries about her stepping into the campaign fray.

“She’s tough, but she’ll have to get tougher,” he says. “She’ll have to get some scar tissue. It’s a nasty business today.”

As the evening wears on, Dingell tires of politics and turns to his favorite subject. He rebounds considerably in retelling a story about a particularly fruitful duck hunt in Argentina.

“We couldn’t keep the guns loaded,” he recalls “I shot through $500 of shells. And I told the guy, ‘That’s outrageous. It should have been a thousand bucks. We’re leaving too soon.’ ”

He’s smiling now, sitting up in his chair, reaching for a favorite photo of himself and Bill Clinton in a duck blind. It’s as if someone threw a light switch.

“Maybe we’ll have time to do some more shooting,” he says to me.

Maybe we will.

nfinley@detroitnews.com
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