DENVER — One would think that the panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains that Rep. John Dingell is enjoying from his Denver hotel room this week resembles a foreign landscape for someone who has represented the gritty western industrial suburbs of Detroit since 1955.
But the 82-year-old Michigan Democrat and dean of the House of Representatives says it makes him feel right at home as he attends his 14th Democratic National Convention. That’s because he was born in the shadow of the Colorado Rockies and spent four years as a ranger in the Rocky Mountain National Park before moving to Detroit.
“Let me tell you this, I don’t know whether heaven can be any better than the Rocky Mountains,” Dingell told me Monday as he recalled what he obviously considers one of the happiest periods of his long life. “All the things I did in the Park Service were fun.”
Dingell, elected to Congress in 1955 to succeed his father, who died after 22 years in office, worked as a park ranger from 1948 to 1951. “I did everything, from trail patrols to rescue operations to trapping bears,” he said. He noted that his first boss was working for the Park Service when the Rocky Mountain National Park was created.
The day before, as he prepared to check into the historic Brown Palace Hotel with his wife, Debbie, who heads the General Motors Foundation, he pointed to the west as the sun set over the distant Rockies. “Look at that view,” he said. “I feel like I’m coming home.”
Dingell, who regained the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2006 after chairing it from 1981-94, explained that he was born in Colorado Springs, where his father had moved from the Detroit area after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. “His doctor said he had only a year to live, and he told him, ‘I’ll live to piss on your grave,’ which he could have because he outlived him,” Dingell said.
When the elder Dingell moved back to Detroit with his family, he ran for Congress and was elected in 1933. He served until his death in 1955, when his son, who graduated from Georgetown Law School and served as assistant district attorney for Wayne County in Michigan, won his seat in a special election.
Dingell was elected to a full term in 1956 and has been reelected 26 times, usually by double digit margins. As a result, he and his father have represented their southeastern Michigan district for three quarters of a century.
Dingell, who is in good health except for the fact that he has to use crutches while waiting for a knee replacement, is running for a 28th term in November, and if he wins, as is likely, he will become the longest serving member of the House in history on Feb. 14, 2009.
That’s when he would surpass the longevity record of Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss. Only the late Sen. Carl Hayden, D-Ariz., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., have served longer in Congress with service in the House and Senate. But he keeps his longevity in perspective, saying, “It’s not the number of years you’ve served, but how well you’ve done with those years.”
He obviously supports Barack Obama and hopes he’ll be elected to become the 11th president he’s served under. But he told me that Obama’s campaign “hasn’t taken off,” and that he must conduct a different campaign in the fall than that which won him the Democratic nomination.
‘Very different campaigns’
He’s got to address things that go into a presidential campaign as opposed to a primary campaign,” he said. “They’re very different campaigns.”
Dingell said Obama must address substantive issues, beginning with ending the war in Iraq, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, stemming the loss of jobs to foreign countries, and providing health insurance for the 47 million Americans who lost it, including one million in Michigan. The latter is especially important to Dingell, who begins every Congress by introducing a bill calling for a national health insurance system.
Dingell’s critique reflected the concern of other senior Democrats that Obama must realize the primary campaign is over and that “Republicans will run a very rough campaign against him” after John McCain becomes the GOP presidential nominee in the Twin Cities next week.
His concern that Obama could lose key states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania was echoed Tuesday by Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who told me as he prepared to watch Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speak to the Democratic Convention, that while Obama can win Ohio, he can’t do it unless he zeroes in on domestic issues.
“He’s got to do some things,” he said in a judgment that is widely shared by Democrats like Dingell. “If he’s an economic populist, he wins the state.”