John Dingell, Ready to Sell the Bear’s Hide
Posted at 6:22 p.m. on Feb. 24
Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and Roll Call have grown together on Capitol Hill, having both arrived in 1955. Now, with Dingell announcing his plans to retire at the end of the 113th Congress, it’s worth noting that over the half-century-plus of his tenure, he has remained remarkably consistent in his larger-than-life presence, coupled with his love of blunt, saucy language. This just so happens to fit right into HOH’s wheelhouse.
On the occasion of Roll Call’s 50th commemorative edition in 2005, as well as his own half-century of service, the dean of the House wrote: “I do wonder what the Speaker who first swore me into office — the great Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) — would say about this milestone year for both Roll Call and me if he were still around. I might be, let us say, colorful — but I guarantee you one thing, it would be brilliant. Sam knew how to craft a sound bite before CNN was a glimmer in Ted Turner’s eye.”
Dingell could well have been referring to himself. Sound bites, pull quotes, whatever you call them, Dingell can serve them up with the best. On Monday, in the speech in which he announced his retirement, he had this to say about the current state of Congress: “Little has been done in this Congress, with 57 bills passed into law. That is not Heinz packaged varieties, it is the laws passed by the Congress.”
It was a sentiment the dean has expressed more than once, including in a 2011 interview with then-Roll Call reporter Jonathan Strong. He matter-of-factly stated that if a version of himself from previous years saw the current state of the Congress, “I’d probably want to go and vomit.”
At the time, Dingell was chafing at his Democratic Party being returned to the minority for only the second time in his long career, thanks largely to the strength of the tea party wave in the 2010 elections. He had some strong words about the new GOP majority, too: “[Speaker John A. Boehner] has created this crowd, and all of the sudden, they come in and they don’t follow him. So he’s created a monster. He created a monster that’s gonna eat him. Before they even know where the men’s or women’s restrooms is, they’re making speeches telling how important they are and how this has gotta be done.”
In 2003, when Democrats had been in the minority after the 1994 election for a long House winter for them, Dingell was equally acidic about the GOP. “Democrats are like mushrooms. We’re kept in the dark and fed horseshit,” he told a House Democratic whip meeting, as reported by HOH’s own Ed Henry at the time. He had some choice words about being left out of GOP deliberations over the Medicare prescription drug benefit as well: “There is no end to the rascality of these flinty hearted bastards.”
He was a partisan warrior, for sure, telling reporters before the 2006 elections that restored Democrats to majority status that, “You would enjoy it. You would have lots of fun,” referring to what he would do with investigations of the George W. Bush administration if he got his Energy and Commerce gavel back.
But he also defended to the hilt his treatment of the minority party when he was in charge of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “I don’t want to hear any bullshit about how bad the minority was treated when I used to be chairman,” he told Strong in 2011.
He was never afraid to say things that invited people to notice his age, a bit of self-effacement increasingly rare in public officials. In October, he told his colleagues on the Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing of the Affordable Care Act that “I remind my colleagues, the last perfect law came off the top of Mount Sinai … written on a stone tablet by the hand of God. Note, nothing so good has happened since.”
In 2007, gearing up for a second run as Energy and Commerce chairman, he sat down for an interview with Roll Call’s Morton M. Kondracke, who asked Dingell about whether Congress could produce “some sort of comprehensive energy strategy.” Dingell replied: “Mort, we have been hassling around on this since Hector was a puppy,” showing a deftness with the Greek literature reference. When pressed by Kondracke whether “you expect to have actual legislation drafted after you do these various hearings,” Dingell returned to the puppy: “Mort, that is a question I have been fencing with since I was a puppy and the answer is: just as darn fast as we can.”
And no HOH appreciation of the dean would be complete without discussing the annual Dingell Jingle, his annual Christmastime lyrical gift. In 2013, in a parody of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Dingell poked fun about the just-recent government shutdown: “And so rhetoric flared, rich with words set to rile them/As the inmates controlled the Congressional asylum.”
As for our favorite Dingell-ism? In 2009, as he approached the milestone of being the longest-serving House member in history, he told our colleague Steven T. Dennis that he was nowhere near retiring: “There’s an old Polish saying, ‘Before you sell the bear’s hide, you first have to shoot the bear. This bear’s doing pretty good.’”
Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. Rep. Dingell, thanks for providing the bear for so many years.