Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell

One day in 1980, I was at my desk on an upper floor of a  way-past-its-prime hotel that had become a staff office annex for the U. S. House of Representatives.

The onetime hotel that had been turned into the House Annex where I worked in 1980.

My boss — Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, wanted some information about an obscure part of a not-so-well-known energy bill: say, Section 227D of the 1979 Energy Act Amendments, something like that, and the request had been bounced down the office status ladder to me.

I knew nothing about the Energy Act or the amendments, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

But I knew who did know: Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan; or someone in his office. I think maybe Dingell even wrote the amendments. So I picked up the phone and dialed his office number.

By 1980, Dingell had been in Congress for 25 years; he would stay in Congress for almost 35 more.

John Dingell is sworn in as a Congressman by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in 1955. (But Rayburn served a mere 48 years.)

Dingell was a tough, tenacious Democrat, who was already high up in the House hierarchy. That meant he had lots of staff assistants like me, only likely better-informed, with more political hustle, who could set me straight, if they bothered to take the call from a Republican nobody. (My boss, McCloskey was a Republican, and this was the time when Ronald Reagan was eating Jimmy Carter’s lunch.)

The phone rang once, maybe twice, then was scooped up with a pre-cellphone rattle that meant the receiver was grabbed with alacrity, not reluctance.

“John Dingell.” said a voice.

What?? Err, uh, I, uh–”

If I was a coffee drinker, this was a java-spewing-from-my-nostrils moment. It wasn’t a receptionist. Nor an intern. Not even the assistant chief of staff.

The Boss. Himself.

When I recovered, I identified myself and my office and stumbled through my query.

“Sure,” Dingell said, and then reeled off the answer, clearly and concisely, as if I was calling from the White House, or maybe the New York Times (or the Detroit Free Press?)

I scribbled a couple of notes, and asked for clarification of one point, which he patiently offered. I thanked him, he said I was welcome and then it was done.

The call only lasted about three minutes. It took me awhile longer to recover my balance. Thirty-nine years later, I still have questions.

Why was Dingell picking up cold calls to his office phone? And why was he taking time to answer a rookie question from a minor league staffer from across the aisle?

And how, with hundreds of bills and laws and amendments streaming across his desk, day after day, week after week, was he up to the minute even on Section 227D?

(Would he have known Section 227C as well?? Probably.)

After much pondering, I’ve come to a simple answer: Dingell was a mensch, and a natural. He also didn’t have an inflated view of himself; he could, and did, speak to me as one colleague to another, from out of the blue.

It’s no wonder he was re-elected to Congress more times than anyone else in that body’s history.

Rep. Paul “Pete ” McCloskey. A war hero, but an anti-Vietnam war campaigner, and a fine public servant. But his is another story.

Now my boss, McCloskey was a fine guy. But if there’s a special gallery in heaven reserved for the best of Congress, I bet John Dingell has a seat in it.

I know that’s an iffy notion; Mark Twain concluded long ago that “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and we have recently heard much corroboration for that view, especially from one side of the aisle.

For that matter, my boss McCloskey argued, even before he left Washington three years later, that “Congressmen are like diapers. You need to change them often, and for the same reason.”

Your humble blogger, in a sketch from around this time, with daughters Molly (left) and Annika (right)

But still; I say IF.

I gather that some fatuous pretender recently spoke of John Dingell as being in hell.

It only took me about two minutes to learn, but I’m pretty sure I know otherwise.

More like vice versa.

5 thoughts on “Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell”

  1. I too, worked for John Dingell – immigration and passports in his Dearborn office. I was older than most of the staff, came from a media post, and I was a Republican. He was the best boss I ever had or will have. I love this column and would like to share with other Team Dingell members. How can I find it?

  2. This is such a wonderful letter and so telling of the time when Washington worked.

    I was Congressman Dingell’s Chief of Staff (you will no doubt recall when they were called AAs) for many years (1993 – 2000) and while he may not have answered the phone himself in later years, nothing in your letter surprises me.

    Many thanks.

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