Dingell not only 'witness to history ... but a maker of it'

Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell Jr.'s death Thursday prompted an outpouring of praise from across Michigan and across the political aisles, as leaders from all walks of life agreed he was "not merely a witness to history ... but a maker of it."

From former presidents to titans of industry to those who knew him as a champion for his state, many said Dingell fought politically to find common ground, was deeply rooted in public service and focused on improving lives for generations.

Former President Barack Obama noted Dingell presided over the vote for the government health care program for seniors, Medicare; helped lead the fight for the Civil Rights Act; helped rescue the U.S. auto industry "in a moment or peril," and sat beside Obama when he signed the Affordable Care Act. 

Former Michigan Rep. John Dingell holds up the gavel he used 50 years ago when Medicare legislation was passed, as he speaks at an event marking the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid,  July 29, 2015, on Capitol Hill.

"John Dingell’s life reminds us that change does not always come with a flash, but instead with steady, determined effort. Over the course of the longest congressional career in history, John led the charge on so much of the progress we take for granted today," Obama said in a statement.

"He had a long tradition of introducing legislation on the first day of each new Congress to guarantee health care for every single American. Because of him, we’ve come closer to that vision than ever before. And when we finally achieve it — and we will — we’ll all owe him our gratitude."

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Former President George W. Bush said he talked to Dingell on Thursday afternoon. 

"I thanked him for his service to our country and for being an example to those who have followed him into the public arena," Bush said in a statement. 

"He was a fine gentleman who showed great respect for our country and her people. He represented his district with decency and honor. And Laura and I join the people of Michigan in sending our sympathies to Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and their family."

The Clintons thanked Dingell for his service on Twitter.

"For nearly 60 years, John Dingell represented the people of Michigan with honor, integrity & great good humor," former President Bill Clinton said. "There are few major legislative triumphs since 1955 that he didn’t have a key hand in passing. Hillary & I are grateful to have worked with him & called him our friend."

Former U.S. Sen. and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton agreed, noting Dingell's social media prowess since retiring four years ago.

"I, our country, and Twitter will miss @JohnDingell’s quick wit, good heart, and profound sense of patriotism," she tweeted. "My thoughts are with @RepDebDingell, the whole Dingell family, and the wide community of friends, constituents, and fellow Americans who admired and respected him."

From left, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak pose for a photo at the Charity Preview for the 2013 North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center.

The Levins — former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit; former Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak; and freshman Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township — said their family had been "blessed" by more than 70 years of friendship with the Dingells.

"We know our sadness is shared by the multitude whose lives were touched and enhanced by his. He was a giant who deeply believed in public service and was rewarded with the public’s immense respect and gratitude," they said.

"He was tough because he cared so deeply. His contributions to working families’ economic well-being, health care and environmental protection over more than half a century were unparalleled."

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who in 2013 named the House Energy and Commerce Committee main hearing room after Dingell, recalled that "colleagues — and I was proud to be one of them — were always educated, inspired and in fact awed by him."

Rep. John Dingell puts his arm around Rep. Fred Upton during a Congressional delegation press conference at the Detroit auto show in 2010, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

"With John you always knew where you stood," said Upton, who served with Dingell from 1987 until his retirement in early 2015.

"If you disagreed, you better have a damn good reason why. Simply reverting to rhetoric or the party line would not fly because he knew the issues 'inside and out' and always did his homework. John would out think, out work and out fox nearly everyone.” 

Dingell gave great advice about how to approach Congress, said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Florida, chairman of the U.S. House Ethics Committee.

"When I got to Congress, John sat me down to give me advice: 'You’re not important. It’s what you can now do to help others that’s important. If you never forget that, you’ll do fine.' Deutch tweeted Thursday night.

"John never forgot, and he helped millions. A very fine life indeed. RIP."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who knew Dingell for more than 30 years, noted his "legacy of working to improve people’s lives will last forever."

"He will be remembered as one of the greatest legislators in American history who never forgot about the people he served and the city of Detroit," Duggan said. "When our workers or automakers needed help, John always answered their call. No one fought harder for working people in Congress than John did.

"When the Rouge and Detroit Rivers festered with pollution, John led the effort in Congress to clean them up. Perhaps most importantly, when his father died, John carried on his legacy of fighting for universal health care coverage. He presided over the House when Medicare passed in 1965, and he was there when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010. More than 680,000 Michiganders have health care today thanks to John never giving up on his father’s dream."

His influence and emphasis on bipartisanship resonated beyond the halls of Congress.

Dingell "paved the way for the kind of statesman-like leadership we long for today, embodying civility and an effortless way of working across the aisle," said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has made the restoration of political civility a major priority.

"John was a champion for Michigan and always placed the interests of people above party. This loss will not only be felt across the state, but the nation as well.” 

The former congressman's impact also was felt in the union halls.

United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser, right, shakes hands with Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, prior to a hearing Jan. 24, 1983 on the loss of health benefits due to unemployment.

"John Dingell's voice filled the halls of Congress with a message of hope for working families in a career spanning nearly 60 years," United Auto Workers President Gary Jones said. "He was a legend in the halls of Congress. But in Michigan he was that rare accessible hero that would fight for our paychecks, our health care, our labor rights and our civil and human rights.

"Let the words of history honor his integrity, wit and the impact he still has on our daily lives. ...  And we give thanks to Debbie and his children for sharing such a life well lived in compassionate service to all of us. John Dingell will be missed by all working families."

Dingell's life and career were a model for Michigan residents, Kresge Foundation CEO and president Rip Rapson said.

"No one person has better personified the graceful essence and fighting spirit of our great state than Congressman Dingell, a deservedly legendary figure in Michigan and across our nation," Rapson said.

Other fellow lawmakers and politicians honored the civil servant.

The Dearborn Democrat was "a mentor to me and countless others who sought to give back to their communities," said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. "I will never forget his wise counsel as I learned my way around Congress. Chairman Dingell will always be with us because his legacy will be forever woven into the history of Michigan and our country."

Dingell “was not merely a witness to history. He was a maker of it," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.

"He understood the connection our people have to manufacturing, to agriculture and to the land and the Great Lakes that support our Michigan way of life." 

Even freshman Michigan members of the U.S. House paid their respects.

"From Medicare and Social Security, advancing the idea of universal health care, to environmental protections and standing up for our autoworkers — the Dean stood up for the protection of the well-being of Americans," said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, took to Twitter to honor him. “The world has lost a giant: for justice, for health care and for the advancement of American innovation," she wrote. "My dear friend, John Dingell, a true leader for our country, may you Rest In Peace sir, we will take good care of your beloved Deborah.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, chief deputy whip of the House Democratic Caucus, called Dingell "someone I looked up to, a dear colleague and a guiding voice for good. John will forever be a role model for those who seek a life of public service and helping others."

The Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes hailed Dingell as "the embodiment of what it means to be a Michigan Democrat: hard-working, selfless and relentless in his pursuit to improve the lives of the everyday people who built our state and make it great."

His death reverberated with other Republicans as well.

"Our nation mourns the passing of a legend," said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan resident. "As the longest-serving congressman in U.S. history, John represented the people of Michigan with high honor, great humor and a bigger heart."

Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash tweeted: "May his memory be eternal. It is an honor to have served with John. He was distinguished, kind and funny — nobody could match his wit on Twitter."

Business leaders also took note.

General Motors Co. Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra called Dingell "a man of honor and determination.

"His dedication to the auto industry and Michigan are undisputed and we will miss his unifying voice and wry sense of humor," she said.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said: "He was tough but fair, and he represented FCAwell, particularly the employees who worked at the Dundee and Trenton engine plants and the numerous employees and their families who live in his former districts. We will miss his humor and his wit, and the voracity with which he fought for the people of this state and all Americans."

Bill Ford, Ford Motor Co. executive chairman, described Dingell as “a larger-than-life legend whose presence will be deeply missed at Ford."

"Even on the most divisive issues at the most difficult of times, he was unwavering in his efforts to find common ground. ... His passing is a reminder that we need more leaders who are willing to find compromise and bring people together for the greater good.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, had a more visceral reflection about Dingell's skill and influence.

".@JohnDingell always sped by me in his scooter calling 'keep up Tammy,' racing for the elevator to go cast our votes," tweeted Duckworth, a former U.S. House member. "I never won & always marveled at this great public servant who was also my arch nemesis in the wheelchair elevator wars."