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Dingell Becomes Longest Serving Member of Congress

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John Dingell

This 1955 file photo provided by Rep. John Dingell's office, shows the congressman being sworn in by mentor and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1955. Fifty seven years ago, Rep. John Dingell, who this week becomes the longest serving member of Congress in history, nearly began his career in tears on the floor of the House. Members were delivering tributes to his father, John Dingell Sr., who had died recently. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the Dingell Family, File)

On Friday, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) became the longest serving member of Congress in history, eclipsing the record held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Dingell has held his seat for 57 years.  In his long career, he has epitomized the power of the legislative branch and the changes it has undergone over the  last century. 

Nicknamed "Big John'' for his 6-foot-3 stature and sometimesimperious demeanor, he long presided as a powerful committee chairman and put his imprint on legislation in areas as varied as air quality, health care and energy.

 Dingell began his career in tears on the floor of the House. The Michigan Democrat was a freshly elected 29-year-old on his first day on the job. Members like legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn — all "the real giants" of the House, Dingell says — were delivering tributes to his father, John Dingell Sr., who had died recently.

The younger Dingell had just won an election to replace him. Now it was his turn to speak.

"I had to go to the well of the House and express my appreciation," Dingell said in an interview. "Quite frankly, it was a highly emotional moment. It was quite hard to keep from crying."

From that unsteady beginning, Dingell assembled a record that epitomized the power of the legislative branch of government and the changes it has undergone over the last century. And his longevity testifies to the formidable willpower of a man nicknamed "Big John" for his 6-foot-3 stature and his sometimes imperious demeanor, as well as the skill of a politician who won elections in a state he had barely lived in since he was a child.

After Dingell won election in 1955, one of his most fulfilling, but also politically dangerous, moments came when he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which eliminated unequal voter registration requirements and outlawed racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public areas.

"Damn near lost an election over it," Dingell said, matter of factly. "The Wall Street Journal gave me a one in 15 chance of winning that race."

The black community took note, said Michigan Rep. John Conyers, who served on Dingell's staff before he was elected to Congress in 1964. "He was in the forefront," Conyers said.

He has also been known as one of Congress' toughest investigators. 

As he gradually acquired seniority and clout, Dingell played a key role in the creation of the Medicare program in 1965, and wrote the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

He has reigned as a powerful committee chairman, putting his imprint on legislation in areas as varied as air quality, consumer protection, health care, energy and the auto industry. He earned a reputation as one of the sharpest government watchdogs in Washington, famous for his lacerating style of interrogation at committee hearings. And the loss of his chairmanship in recent years marked the end of an era in which senior members ruled Congress without challenge.

"It goes by like a blur," said Dingell, of the period in which he has served with 11 presidents. "This job is incredible. You put in so much, but you get so much more out of it."

Now 86, Dingell says he has no plans to retire.

"I'm not going to stay around here until people say, 'I knew him when he was a good man, now he's this doddering old fool," he said.

Categories: Government, Politics