Congressman Dingell: The Dean’s Lessons

Congressman John Dingell, the longest-serving member of the United States Congress, passed away on February 7, 2019. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1955, Dingell was elected as a young World War II veteran offering progressive ideas for the future of American politics. A staunch advocate for healthcare reform, Dingell was instrumental in the passing of Medicaid, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act of 2010. While the longtime Dean of the House will be remembered for his extraordinary grasp of policy, he also served as a role model for future political leadership for both sides of the aisle.

In recent years, the concept of accessibility has been equated with the virtue of young blood and alternative types of leadership. This is directly related to the rapid rise and indelible impact of social media. Online, everyone and anyone can have a voice and participate on a platform. President Trump has utilized Twitter in creating policy, while President Obama capitalized on direct emails and online campaigns for small donorship that cultivated his dedicated base. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Representative from New York’s 14th Congressional district and youngest woman ever elected to the House, became a household name in part because of her candor and accessibility online. Congressman Dingell was a pioneer of this movement, not only bearing witness to decades of tech innovation, but embracing and exploiting it, even at a late stage of life. His personal, frank, and oftentimes funny online presence remains unrivaled by that of younger House Democrats and Republicans alike.


Dingell, an avid user of Twitter, combined his wit and vast policy expertise to engage directly with voters across the country, even after retiring from office. (His wife, Deborah Dingell, now holds his former seat in Michigan’s 12th district.)  Following a major white Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, Dingell sagely tweeted: “I signed up to fight Nazis 73 years ago and I’ll do it again if I have to. Hatred, bigotry, & fascism have no place in this country.” His post garnered over 700,000 “likes” and illustrated Dingell’s distinctive ability to incorporate his political story with that of a greater national conversation in under 160 characters. Past, present, and future political leaders should consider capitalizing on Dingell’s legacy of sharp-witted use of social media if they intend to create lasting relationships and garner support amongst their constituencies.

Another aspect of Dingell’s leadership that public servants should consider modeling is his acute understanding of his privilege as an American citizen. Serving in the House of Representatives from 1955 to 2015, Dingell observed some of the most tumultuous and astonishing moments in our nation’s history, including the Watergate Scandal in 1972, the launch of the Hubble Telescope in 1990, and the election and installation of eleven presidents. He understood the responsibilities associated with his seat in the House, and created an awareness of his privilege to have been born in the United States. He stated, “I really won the Mega Millions lottery when I was born in the United States of America.” Such an appreciation for the good fortune to be American must be cherished by future political leadership. This is something that Dingell never took for granted and something he remembered--even when his criticism of his homeland was harsh.


Dingell also possessed a deep interest in the future of our democracy, offering suggestions on specific ways to regain confidence in this American experiment. In an Atlantic article published in late December 2018, Dingell suggested “an electoral system based on full participation, [...]the elimination of money in campaigns, [...] the end of minority rule in our legislative and executive branches, [and] the protection of an independent press.”  Dingell offered such suggestions with the goal of restoring Americans’ faith in their government, because he truly believed that our country was in “mortal peril.” Regardless of one’s political leanings, when a member of the House of Representatives who served for over fifty-five years believes that the nation’s governmental system may be at risk, the least Americans can do is consider their message.

Future political leaders should also reflect on Dingell’s propositions if they desire a fair and just governmental framework. His points are reasonable and rational. The Washington Post published a posthumous essay by the Congressman titled “My Last Words” the day after he passed away. The article conveys a deep love and passion for this nation, but additionally acknowledges the flaws within it. He states, “in democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).” This particular statement recognizes a sense of accountability necessary on the part of elected officials in creating a strong future for this country. Dingell concludes by proclaiming, “as I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.”

While many of America’s future leaders will never have the pleasure of being personally welcomed into the House of Representatives by Congressman Dingell, the former Dean’s lessons will live on through future Congress members’ advocacy and dedication to creating a more fair and just United States. As tweeted by the man himself two days before he passed: “You’re not done with me just yet.”

Sophia Houdaigui