Toasted as longest-serving member, Dingell urges greater civility in Congress

Congress on Thursday honored Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) as the nation's longest-serving member in an emotional ceremony in which the 30-term Democrat urged more civility in Washington.

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At an hour-long toast in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, Vice President Biden praised Dingell's decades-long fight for the middle class; Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saluted the "honor" and "sincerity" of "a good friend;" Mary Wilson of The Supremes belted out a string of classics evoking Motown's heyday; and scores of lawmakers from both parties put their differences aside to raise bubbling glasses to the reigning dean of the institution.

But it was Dingell himself who stole the show, delivering a 14-minute speech that was part humble thanks to his colleagues; part history lesson on the country he's served so long; and part warning that the entrenched partisanship gripping Washington is a threat to the very republic Congress is bound to preserve.

"Like all of you, I'm troubled about the times in which we find ourselves. We have too much ill-will, too much hatred, too much bitterness, too much anger," Dingell said. "Congress means 'a coming together,' where people come together to work for great causes in which they all have an important interest. … We have, I think, unfortunately, because of the pressure of the times, forgotten this.

"We're the oldest democracy in the history of mankind, and preserving something of this kind is very difficult," he added. "Our struggle now is to keep this republic. … It is very fragile, extremely so, but less so when we are all together."

Dingell last Friday tallied his 20,997th day on Capitol Hill, surpassing the record previously held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

Dingell cited several of his mentors, including former Speakers Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) and John McCormack (D-Mass.). But he reserved most of the praise for his own father, John Dingell Sr., another long-serving Michigan congressman "who gave me a running start at this political business," the younger Dingell said.

"He fought for something of particular concern: social justice. … He left me an example, and he was a great teacher," Dingell said.

"I'd like to be able to claim that I'm smart enough to have done the things that I've done without the benefit of the wisdom of greater men than I," he added. "But he was one."

Seated behind him on the dais, Boehner wiped tears from his eyes.

The large crowd gathered to honor Dingell was some testimony to his time on Capitol Hill. It included the top congressional leaders in both chambers — Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — but also relative newcomers like Reps. Billy Long (R-Mo.), Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.). Several members of President Obama's Cabinet were also on hand.

The 86-year-old Dingell was first elected in 1955 in a special contest to replace his father, who died in office. Since then, he's had a hand in some of the most significant legislative accomplishments of the last century, including the creation of Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Water Act and ObamaCare.

Even Dingell's conservative colleagues, who are often at odds with the Michigan liberal on specific policies, were quick to acknowledge his effectiveness as a legislator.

"A legacy is not something you can conjure up or acquire," Boehner said. "A legacy is something that you make."

Dingell received more than accolades. Boehner used the occasion to announce that the Energy and Commerce Committee room in the Rayburn Office building will now bear Dingell's name. Boehner said he arrived at the decision after consulting with Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas), formerly the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce panel, and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the current chairman.

Additionally, congressional leaders took the stage to help Boehner unveil a portrait of a much younger Dingell as a gift from the House.

"He can take this portrait home and hang it wherever Debbie tells him he can," Boehner quipped, referring to Dingell's wife. 

Dingell, for his part, seemed to bask in the honors — "I am probably the luckiest man in shoe leather," he said at one point — but also made sure to send a message to those who will remain in Congress when he's gone. 

"We are not the masters of this nation; we are the public servants," he said, "and that's the highest calling of them all."