Lessons from John Dingell: Civility trumps partisanship

John Dingell

Editors' note: During his speech in Battle Creek Wednesday night, President Trump insulted U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and her recently deceased husband, Dearborn Democrat John Dingell, when he said it was possible the deceased U.S. representative was "looking up" from hell. Since this has generated a lot of conversation about civility, we thought it appropriate to reprint a column John Dingell wrote on this topic last year on the occasion of the death of George H.W. Bush. The following article first ran in The Detroit News on Dec. 2, 2018.

This past weekend we lost former President George H.W. Bush. He was a public servant in the highest definitions. Over the next few days, you’ll read plenty about both President Bush’s political and public life. But I want to remember the George I knew and worked with for decades, and shared our latter years. As history will have it, George was the last president to serve in WWII and I was the last WWII veteran in Congress. Both of us understood how fragile this American democracy was and the atrocities that were occurring in the world. Both of us signed up immediately when war was declared and knew our moral responsibility to defend America and fight for the freedom of mankind.

John and Debbie Dingell pose with George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush.

Our friendship was forged over countless games of paddle ball, wild game dinners and intense, yet respectful, policy debates. We were from a political generation that understood delivering for the American people was more important than political wins. The success of government and good public policy is the success of hard-working men and women. Remember the note he left President Clinton on inauguration day: “You will be our president when you read this note. Your success now is our country’s success. I will be rooting hard for you.”

We were members of Congress at a time when people got to know each other. President Bush was never too important to not spend time with his friends. We knew each other’s wives and children — some of our children dated — and we knew we all had responsibilities to each other and the constituents of their districts as well as ours.  At dinners or in the gym we shared the ups and downs of life, our thoughts on issues of the day and actually listened to each other’s perspectives. We didn’t always agree, and could have some very tough discussions. I proudly wore the label President Bush gave me that I could be “a giant pain in the ass.” But he and I knew if either of us gave our word it was golden and you could take it to the bank.

President Bush always cared about people. He and Barbara paid attention to the little things. They knew when people were down, needed a kind word, a helping hand. They would make people feel at home, comfortable, and at ease. Deborah remembers working with Barbara on many projects, particularly childhood health.

George Bush came from a time (as did I) when we believed that American equality demands that we treat one another with the same dignity and respect with which we expect to be treated. He was horrified at the harshness our national discourse has taken and deeply disturbed at watching too many people speak past each other. We both shared deep concern about the hateful taunts, the despicable actions and language that plague our political cultural.

We both acknowledged to each other that we are looking at our lives in the rear view mirror and that it was time to turn over our responsibilities to a younger generation. But it is my hope, that as millions of Americans remember my friend, it will inspire them to remember the history of America and how we endured tough times. May the stories of my good friend help us find our way back to a society that promotes dialogues, not demagogues, and that it helps us to remember we, the people, have the ability to restore this great nation to common ground rather than letting it continue its downward spiral into constant chaos.

I am an old man now and imagine I will soon be joining my friend, George, in heaven ( I hope, for both of us). Barbara will have to watch out for me for awhile, because I pray the lovely Deborah has a lot more time on earth to carry out the mission of public service. Our ages bore with them responsibilities to share what we had witnessed and experienced in our lifetimes so that future generations can learn and with some luck avoid making some of the same mistakes we made and history has witnessed.

Godspeed dear friend, I suspect I will be seeing you soon. But may your life inspire generations and, as your life work is remembered, teach some of these young pups some valuable life lessons.

John D. Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, was the longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He died Feb. 7, 2019.