John Dingell 'made a profound difference,' D.C. funeral speakers say

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell was remembered Thursday for making a "profound difference" in American history — a "giant" of the House and "world-class doer" who set the standard for working across the aisle in Congress.

The Dearborn Democrat, who died last week at age 92, was a "stand-up guy" who put people first, played the game "straight ahead" and did things in an an old-school way that should be adapted for new times, said former President Bill Clinton, a fellow Democrat who spoke at Dingell's funeral.

"Let’s be honest. One of the reasons none of us would have missed this, is this is the only time in our entire lives in public service that we were in the same room with John Dingell and got the last word," Clinton said to laughs and applause.

"He was a remarkable man, as all of you have said. A patriot, in some cases, without peer in the history of America. He spent more time in the Congress trying to fulfill the Founders' admonition to form a more perfect union than anyone else."  

Many have remarked how being Dingell’s friend entitled “getting your hide ripped off from time to time,” Clinton said. But that’s the mark of an honest friendship: “If you think your friend is wrong, you tell them,” he added.

“Both of us have experienced this exquisite example of affection,” Clinton said, motioning to his wife, Hillary. “I liked it. He never snuck around behind your back.”

The funeral Mass was held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, which was Dingell's parish when he was in town and where he and wife Debbie married in 1981. Another funeral was held Tuesday in Dearborn, where former Vice President Joe Biden hailed Dingell as "an amazing soul."

Rep. Debbie Dingell, who won her husband's seat in 2014, was flanked Thursday by Clinton and his wife in the front pew.

The service was attended by many from official Washington, including more than 100 House members and senators.

They included a bipartisan delegation from Michigan: Sen. Gary Peters and Reps. Dan Kildee, Tim Walberg, Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar, Brenda Lawrence, Rashida Tlaib, Haley Stevens, Andy Levin and Elissa Slotkin, as well as former Reps. Dale Kildee and Bart Stupak. 

Former President Bill Clinton, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, attend the funeral for former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., at Holy Trinity Church, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 in Washington.

Dingell was a longtime chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and five current or former chairmen of the panel turned out to pay respects: Reps. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey; Greg Walden, R-Oregon; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Joe Barton, D-Texas; and former Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, sat in a front pew. 

Current and former cabinet officials on hand included Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a former transportation secretary from North Carolina, and John Podesta, who was chief of staff to Bill Clinton.

Several female House members were wearing pink, orange or red scarves to honor Debbie Dingell. She gifted the scarves to female members in recent years to raise awareness of breast cancer, gun violence and heart health, respectively, an aide said.

Clinton noted that Dingell had endangered his seat in Congress by voting for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, drawing a primary challenge for his next re-election campaign. 

"His Polish immigrant Catholic heritage, his study of social justice with the Jesuits up the street, did not permit him to pull up the ladder of opportunity just because he had climbed it," Clinton said. 

Twitter 'Zen master'

The former president told other stories of Dingell's early days in the House as a bit of a rabble-rouser, objecting to the seating of an Arkansas member over questions whether he was fairly elected.  

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral service for former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., at Holy Trinity Church, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 in Washington.

"He was not afraid as a young man to risk the ire of people who could have wrecked his effectiveness to make the point that no one should gain automatic admission to the House under a system that was not genuinely democratic," Clinton said.  

After his 59 years in Congress, Dingell became a "Zen master" on Twitter in retirement, Clinton said, praising the former lawmaker's account that is now followed by 269,000 people.

“Bye, John," Clinton said in closing. "Finally you are in that place of more perfect union, where all God’s children know how it feels to be free.”

Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Dingell "truly a man of the House."

"He was fond of the notion that we as Americans are all in the same boat together. At the helm of the ship of state, Democrats rowed left. Republicans rowed right. John Dingell rowed where the people of his beloved Michigan district wanted him to row," said Boehner, the last speaker under whom Dingell served. 

"With those priorities in mind, he forged a legislative record during his decades in Congress that may never be matched. Health care. The environment. Energy. Civil rights. Many of the most significant laws of our land, forged over the last 60 years bear the unmistakable imprint of John David Dingell Jr." 

He noted the idea to name the Energy and Commerce Committee room after Dingell came from two GOP leaders on the panel. 

"They loved him. That's not to say my friend John was all honey and no vinegar. He was a practitioner of what you might call tough love. He was a man who fought fiercely in what he believed," Boehner said. 

"Sometimes, when necessary, it meant getting into the faces of his own friends. I can't tell you how many times over the 25 years we served together he chastised me about smoking. But you always knew where you stood with Mr. Dingell."

Members often sought Dingell's advice. When Boehner became chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee in 2001, the first thing he did was find Dingell at his usual place on the House floor and ask: "What do I do now?" 

Wrote book on bipartisanship

Hoyer hailed Dingell as a fair-minded man "who did the people's work in the people's House." 

As the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, he made "a profound difference" in the lives of millions of people, said Hoyer, a close friend of Dingell's.

"Big John" knew all the parliamentary tricks, Hoyer said. One time when the House Energy and Commerce chairman knew he was going to lose a vote, he quickly ended the hearing to avoid defeat, Hoyer said.

Dingell told his fellow lawmakers, "You may have the votes, but I've got the gavel," Hoyer said. "And more often then not he ultimately got the votes, too." 

Dingell never minced words, never held back, but could also be gentle and encouraging, Hoyer said.

"Sincere, earnest, determined, courageous, persuasive, principled, indefatigable, at times acerbic. Say amen," Hoyer added. "Amen," the crowd echoed.

Hoyer also paid tribute to Debbie Dingell: "John told each of us, I’m sure, that the 'Lovely Deborah' was his strength, his steady hand, his most important adviser and closest friend."

Upton also praised Dingell for working with Republicans. “Bipartisanship — he wrote the book,” said Michigan's senior House Republican.

The flag-draped casket of former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., departs the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, after a funeral service, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, in Washington.

"John Dingell was more than just the Dean of the House. He broke every record," Upton said.

"If he was in sports, his name would be as hallowed as Bo Schembechler, Al Kaline, Tom Brady, Sparky Anderson — and he tweeted about his beloved Tigers and Wolverines until the end. He was Mr. Michigan."

Dingell was courteous and would always show up for colleagues no matter what his physical condition was, the St. Joseph Republican said.

In the early 1990s, Upton recalled going to Detroit to see Dr. Jonas Salk's lab at Ann Arbor in honor of the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine.

Upton flew into City Airport in Detroit, and his plane was at the farthest gate from the curb — Gate G57. He said he was floored to see Dingell waiting there for him at G57, despite his bad hip and bad knee.

“Now he’s waiting for us at another gate to visit again. God bless you.”

Creating 'good trouble'

Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said Dingell was a "giant" who stood a head above others. 

"We admired him. We loved him. He taught us. He led the way. He got in the way. And from time to time he got us into good trouble — necessary trouble," Lewis said. 

Mourners, including former Dingell staffers, lined up outside the church on a chilly morning as early as 8 a.m. to pay their respects.

Former Rep. John Dingell, left, and former President Bill Clinton on Feb. 10, 2009, as he became the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives.

Dingell was a graduate of the nearby Georgetown Preparatory School, Georgetown University and Georgetown University Law School. Debbie Dingell used to teach Sunday school at the Trinity parish.

“He means even more to people who will never know him because his life was filled with service,” said David Dworkin, who grew up in Southfield and worked for the federal team in the Obama administration that helped Detroit navigate its bankruptcy. 

“There aren’t enough churches in the country to hold all the people he helped, who would pay tribute to him if they knew how much he’s helped them.” 

Dworkin, now president of the National Housing Conference, said he’s known Debbie Dingell for 20 years. 

Jennifer Scott Burton brought her 11-year-old son Michael Harrison to honor Dingell. 

Mourners line up outside the Washington D.C. funeral service for former Congressman John Dingell in Georgetown.

Burton met with Dingell about education legislation when he was still in office and she was still executive director of special education for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

“I highly respected him as a legislator,” she said. “He really understood what it meant to represent the people.”

“Also, we miss his tweets!” she added.

Bill McBride, who directed Gov. Rick Snyder’s federal relations office for eight years, has known the Dingells for 40 years. 

“He will go down in history truly as one of the greatest legislators. You aren’t going to have anyone serve that long anymore,” said McBride, who previously worked for GOP former U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers from West Michigan. 

“He really cared about his constituents and we’ve seen that in the outpouring in Michigan for him this last week," he said. "He never went ‘Washington.’ He always stayed true to Michigan.” 

House leaders pushed off votes until Thursday evening to accommodate members who wished to attend Dingell’s funeral or that of Republican Rep. Walter Jones, whose funeral also was Thursday but in North Carolina.

Dingell, who served in World War II, is expected to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.