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In a new book, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell laments the breakdown in civility in America and the country's widening polarization, saying it could take decades if not generations to heal.

Dingell, a Democrat who served longer than any other congressman in history, says the institution has become a "mean-spirited place ... devoid of bipartisanship," recalling bygone days when members worked to find common ground for the good of the country.

"The cancer of cynicism eating away at our country can be cured only when we trust one another again," Dingell writes with co-author David Bender in "The Dean: The Best Seat in the House." 

"No leader alone, no matter how charismatic, no matter how great his or her appeal, can fix what ails us as a nation. That is our unique work as free citizens. There is no more important a cause." 

Dingell’s pleas were underscored last week in posthumous tributes to one of his contemporaries, former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican who one eulogist described Wednesday as standing against "unthinking partisanship."

Bush wrote one of the forwards to the book and said, while Dingell could be a “tough negotiator” — Dingell says Bush called him “a pain in the ass” — he was “always fair and willing to listen, which might be another lost art these days."

"We’re not recognizing the fights are among ourselves, rather than Americans defending this nation and its flag against foreign opponents. I think that’s the important thing to keep in mind — this is where the danger lies," Dingell said in an interview.

"This country should recognize that we should work together and pull together to accomplish our great ends, which is the welfare and well-being of all Americans."

Dingell, 92, served 59 years in the U.S. House, elected in 1955 and retiring in 2014 after two decades as the House dean, or most senior member. 

Most of the book is a behind-the-scenes look at Dingell's political feats and the battles he waged to win them. In the final pages, he offers a prescription for restoring faith in government.

Among his suggestions, Dingell calls for abolishing the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate, which he says gives small states a disproportionate amount of power. 

He wants to end the "pernicious" influence of money in elections by publicly funding political campaigns and says automatically registering citizens at age 18 would encourage full participation in the electoral system: "No photo ID, no residency tests, no impediments of any kind." 

"We’re all shareholders of a wonderful, wonderful corporation, and if we don’t protect and guard it — that corporation — and understand how important it is, we may not be able to defend it and have it exist," Dingell told The Detroit News. 

He has no shortage of disdain for the only modern president he didn't serve with, Donald Trump, saying his election is a symptom of Americans' complacency. 

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Dingell, 92, criticized President Donald Trump in a recent interview with The Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley Detroit Public Television

Twitter is "perhaps the only thing Trump and I have in common," Dingell writes, saying he finds the medium "therapeutic." 

"As a retiree, I find that yelling at the television never makes me feel any better. However, tweeting that 'Donald Trump couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel' gives me a surprising sense of satisfaction," Dingell writes. 

The son of a congressman, Dingell spent childhood days tagging along with his father in the halls of Congress.

At age 15, he was a congressional page and on the House floor when President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his "day of infamy" speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, asking lawmakers to declare war against Japan.

Dingell served in the U.S. Army during World War II and later succeeded his father in Congress at age 29 during the Eisenhower administration.

He cast over 25,000 votes in his career. The one he's most proud of supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though it led to a brutal re-election fight — the second time Dingell had a cross burned on his lawn, he says.

That year, Dingell faced off against another Polish Democratic congressman, John Lesinski Jr., after a redistricting cycle drew them into the same district. Lesinski had voted against the Civil Rights Act. 

Dingell writes about the "ugly" literature that Lesinski's campaign dropped to inflame bigoted voters in white and black communities on the eve of Election Day.

Dingell anticipated the move and had volunteers called the "Dawn Patrol" ready to gather the materials. He then swapped them, putting the stuff meant for the white community in black neighborhoods and vice versa. Dingell reports he won both communities by wide margins. 

"Time healed any hard feelings" between him and Lesinski, Dingell writes, recalling how he praised Lesinski's service on the House floor after Lesinski died in 2005. 

"And I meant every word of it. What people don't understand is that while campaigns get heated, and sometimes personal, government is where you go to bury the hatchet in order to work with people you've opposed in elections or in bruising battles over policy — often both," Dingell writes. 

He went on to chair the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, where he worked to expand the panel's domain and had a reputation for aggressively questioning witnesses. 

"One of the things that my staff used to do when a particularly grueling hearing was over was to go over to the witness table and check for wet spots on the center of the chairs. I'm not joking," Dingell writes. "On more than one occasion, they found them." 

He recalls catching Stanford University charging taxpayers $184,000 for a 72-foot luxury yacht and the defense contractor General Dynamics billing the federal government for boarding a dog named Fursten. 

"Now, I know this is a piddling matter, but I have to wonder how much we are getting in the way of submarines from you folks and how much we are getting in the way of dog boarding," Dingell asked at a 1985 hearing. 

Congress today does little true oversight, Dingell says, claiming the GOP uses it to "fire up their base, raise money and embarrass Democrats and, in the Trump administration, protect a rogue president." 

He is frank with readers about being "wrong" on some issues, including his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and gay marriage. 

Dingell also admits contributing to polarization over the gun debate, raising his decades-long advocacy for gun rights.

He recalls a couple departures from that stance, including voting for President Bill Clinton's 1994 federal crimes bill even though he disagreed with the assault weapons ban it included.

Dingell says he resigned from the board of the National Rifle Association not long after, concluding his duties as a board member to be "irreconcilable" with his responsibilities as a congressman. 

Dingell said in an interview the NRA has strayed from its original mission.

The weapon is "something that’s of value to us, not just for protection for the individual as a whole but for the protection of our country. That is one of the reasons the NRA was put together," Dingell said in an interview.

"It’s something that’s been pushed aside. Now, the NRA is becoming a political institution and one which is less concerned with those matters than it is at making a loud noise at an annual meeting."

Dingell still believes that repealing the Second Amendment is wrong but says those who hold it "dear" need to remember its language calls for "a well-regulated militia."

"You can't have something be 'well-regulated' without regulations," he writes. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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