Former Rep. Dingell, US’s longest-serving lawmaker, dies

DETROIT (AP) – Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history and a master of legislative deal-making who was fiercely protective of Detroit’s auto industry, has died. The Michigan Democrat was 92.

Dingell, who served in the U.S. House for 59 years before retiring in 2014, died Thursday at his home in Dearborn, said his wife, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell.

“He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather and friend,” her office said in a statement. “He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth.”

Dubbed “Big John” for his imposing 6-foot-3 frame and sometimes intimidating manner, a reputation bolstered by the wild game heads decorating his Washington office, Dingell served with every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

He was a longtime supporter of universal health care, a cause he adopted from his late father, whom he replaced in Congress in 1955. He also was known as a dogged pursuer of government waste and fraud, and even helped take down two top presidential aides while leading the investigative arm of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he chaired for 14 years.

“I’ve gotten more death threats around here than I can remember,” Dingell told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview. “It used to bother my wife, but oversight was something we did uniquely well.”

Dingell had a front-row seat for the passage of landmark legislation he supported, including Medicare, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, but also for the Clean Air Act, which he was accused of stalling to help auto interests. His hometown, the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, was home to a Ford Motor Co. factory that was once the largest in the world.

Yet one of his proudest moments came in 2010, when he sat next to Obama as the $938 billion health care overhaul was signed into law. Dingell had introduced a universal health care coverage bill in each of his terms.

“Presidents come and presidents go,” former President Bill Clinton said in 2005, when Dingell celebrated 50 years in Congress. “John Dingell goes on forever.”

Tributes poured in from current and former politicians in both parties.

“Today, we have lost a beloved pillar of the Congress and one of the greatest legislators in American history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “John Dingell leaves a towering legacy of unshakable strength, boundless energy and transformative leadership.”

Former President George W. Bush said he was fortunate to speak to Dingell Thursday afternoon.

“I thanked him for his service to our country and for being an example to those who have followed him into the public arena,” Bush said in statement. “He was a fine gentleman who showed great respect for our country and her people.”

Former President Barack Obama issued a statement saying Dingell’s life “reminds us that change does not always come with a flash, but instead with steady, determined effort. Over the course of the longest congressional career in history, John led the charge on so much of the progress we take for granted today.”

Dingell’s investigations helped lead to the criminal conviction of one of President Ronald Reagan’s top advisers, Michael Deaver, for lying under oath, and to the resignation of Reagan’s first environmental protection chief and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford. She stepped down after refusing to share subpoenaed documents with a House subcommittee investigating a Superfund toxic waste program.

Another probe led to the resignation of former Stanford University President Donald Kennedy after the school misused hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research funds.

Critics called him overpowering and intimidating, a reputation boosted by the head of a 500-pound wild boar that looked at visitors to his Washington office. The story behind it? Dingell is said to have felled the animal with a pistol as it charged him during a hunting trip in Soviet Georgia.

Dingell had more than 250,000 followers on Twitter, which was an outlet for the outspoken Democrat’s wry takes and quick wit. In January, he noted the negative 7-degree temperature in Hell, Michigan, and retweeted a tweet from the Detroit Free Press that said the “Detroit Lions are going to win the Super Bowl” now that Hell had frozen over.

Along with his wife, Dingell is survived by two daughters, two sons, one of whom served 15 years in the Michigan Legislature, and several grandchildren.