For better or worse: Congress’s couples share details of married life

Nothing says love like a gun or three.

At least that’s what Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) thought during the early years of marriage to his wife Debbie. He bought her three guns for various holiday gifts.

“After the third gun, I told him, ‘I’ll take jewelry,’ ” Debbie said, reminiscing about their 28-year marriage during a recent phone interview from Detroit.

The congressman thought he had found the perfect present.

“Deborah told me she was an outdoor girl,” Dingell said in a phone interview from his Hill office. “It turned out her idea of the outdoors and mine were different.”

He sold the guns for a profit, and it now looks like that was one of their few marital miscommunications.

“I am grateful for every day and every minute I am married to Deborah,” he said.

“Our marriage is just something that was meant to be,” she said.

Those of you whose stomachs churn upon hearing of inspirational love need not read on. This story is one about Congress members who have experienced love in a way that could encourage even the fiercest haters of Valentine’s Day.

Who can justify a grumpy attitude this time of year, when Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) conducts congressional business wearing a navy blue tie flecked with red hearts?

“I wear this tie to remind the men around here that Valentine’s Day is coming up,” he said during a vote last week.

Regula holds the No. 2 position in marriage longevity among current House members. He has been married to his college sweetheart, Mary, for 58 years.{mospagebreak}

Was it love at first sight for the Regulas?

“Almost,” he said. “You’d have to define love, but I’d say it was that way for both of us.”

The key to their marriage’s success, Regula said, is that they have been “teammates” as much in his political work as in the upkeep of the farm where they have lived for 57 years.

“I often joke that the only person that could beat me in a primary out there is my wife,” he said.

The No. 1 spot in marriage longevity belongs to Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas). He has been married to wife Mary Ellen for 64 years. On their anniversary, Ralph sends two bunches of roses to his wife. One arrives before 6 p.m., the time they were married, and is addressed to “Miss Mary Ellen Murphy,” her maiden name. Another arrives after 6 p.m. and is addressed to “Mrs. Mary Ellen Hall.”

“We’ve had a wonderful marriage,” he said. “She’s beautiful inside and out.”

Experts insist such love is rare.

“I believe in love at first sight, [but] I don’t think it happens to many people,” said Ann Wood, who runs a Washington matchmaking business. She remembers just one case in which a couple married six weeks after she paired them together.

“I think [love at first sight] happens less frequently, because it’s more likely to happen when people are young and inexperienced,” she said, explaining that she sees the current D.C. dating population as older and more experienced than in eras past.

Even some of the Congress members who enjoy fairy-tale marriages had to work for them. “I turned him down 13 or 14 times,” Debbie Dingell said of John Dingell’s attempts to take her on a date.

John Dingell remembers the courtship a bit differently. “Fifteen times” she turned him down, he said.

The clincher? John got tickets to the ballet, one of Debbie’s passions and an invitation she couldn’t refuse.{mospagebreak}

Twenty-eight years later, they live by a rule that forbids them from spending more than one night apart — two nights maximum — and they rarely break it. One of the keys to their successful marriage, she said, is that they both understand the demands of their high-profile jobs. Debbie is executive director of public affairs for General Motors and chairwoman of the GM Foundation.  

Other Congress members said they also work to keep their marriages vibrant.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has been married to his wife, Mary, a fellow college Republican at Huntingdon College, for 37 years, and they often take weekends away in Northern Virginia to spend time together.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) holds the No. 3 spot in the House for being married to wife Ellen for what he guesses is “40-something” years (the Office of the House Historian says it’s 40 years). He said they have gone to the Carroll County Sweethearts Banquet for 15 Valentine’s Days running. Since his district is close to the Capitol, he goes home every night after work, something he said has been a key to their marriage’s success.

So are there any downsides to these blissful congressional marriages?

“My only complaint is that [our marriage has] gone too fast and been too short,” Rep. Dingell said.
Isn’t that sweet.