Finley: John Dingell knew how to live, how to love

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Nolan Finley interviews John Dingell.

I was up to my waist and cork tight in what I can only describe as quicksand when I looked up and saw John Dingell squinting down at me with that familiar, satisfied grin.

“How in bloody hell did you get in there? And more important, how in blue blazes are you going to get out?”

We were hunting ducks on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I'd winged a goose that came down running, and was in hot pursuit when I stepped into the hole of muck and quickly sank.

John pulled me out, and then finished off the goose.

I never know how to answer when someone asks how a conservative, Republican-leaning newspaperman could become such fast friends with a New Deal Democrat who shaped the liberal politics and policies of the second half of the 20th century.

It never occurred to either of us that we could be anything else.

John didn’t choose the people he loved based on political compatibility. Certainly, he had strong opinions, and so do I, and we engaged often in intense discussions. Not once in 25 years did we exchange angry words, nor ever part with hard feelings.

We were more than our politics. When together, our conversation quickly moved to our common loves — guns and hunting. It was what drew us together in the first place.

John was a great hunter, a dead-eye with a shotgun. I was with him when he shot the last duck he ever killed. Four of us were settled into a blind on a brisk but sunny January morning, and the ducks were coming in fast and furious. Three of us were blasting away like a trio of Elmer Fudds, shooting a lot of birds, but burning up a case of shells in doing so. Not John.

Barely able to stand, he shouldered his shotgun just three times that day. And all three times a duck fell from the sky. Not a shell wasted.

John’s great passion was his wife, Debbie. After that, it was a toss-up between a duck blind and the House chamber for his next greatest love. I recall an afternoon when we were returning to Washington, and as we crested a hill the gleaming white Capitol dome came into view. “I never get tired of seeing that,” he said softly.

And obviously he never did. John spent nearly 60 years in Congress, serving longer than anyone else. And better. John was a parliamentarian; he cherished the traditions and processes of the House.

And while he was a bare-knuckled negotiator who relished a fight, he was ultimately a pragmatist. When the time came to compromise, John set down his club and made the deal.

His decision to retire was based mostly on his waning physical condition. But he was also disgusted with the poisonous partisanship and gridlock ruining Congress. He couldn’t stand to watch what was becoming of  the institution he joined as a teen-aged page during World War II.

Still, he hated to leave. The night before he announced his retirement, he called me to have dinner with him and Debbie. John had made his decision but hadn’t accepted it. He was looking for assurance that he wasn't letting down the people of his district by leaving, that he’d done his best for them, that they’d understand his reasons.

At the same time, he was offering counsel to Debbie, who had a quick decision of her own to make. He wanted her to succeed him, as he had his father, to continue a Dingell legacy in Congress stretching back to 1935. It was a poignant moment between the past and future.

When I’d visit him after retirement, the questions were always the same. Did I make a difference? Do my people remember me? Would Pop be proud?

I was always stunned that he could harbor such doubts, given his enormous accomplishments. But John Dingell never took the obligations of public service lightly. He always felt there was more he could do for the people who placed their trust in him.

He was a man in the best sense of the word. A man of the Greatest Generation. A man of courage, confidence, compassion. A man who did his duty. A man who took care of his own business, and of the people he loved.

Though in many ways political opposites, Nolan Finleyand John Dingell struck up a lasting friendship.

And he sure did know how to love. He and Debbie shared an epic love affair that never waned. You couldn’t be around them more than five minutes without hearing him say, “I love you, Fox.” The fire in his eyes when he looked at her burned until his last breath.

She was fiercely protective of him, and kept him alive years longer than he should have expected by the sheer force of her will.

Our friendship may have been unlikely, but it was one I cherished. I loved him, and hate to see him go.

But if life’s a game, John Dingell won it. Nearly 93 years, and every minute of it lived honorably and with passion and purpose.

Goodbye, good friend. I hope wherever you are this morning, the ducks are coming in fast and low.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.