WASHINGTON — At age 15, John Dingell Jr. was watching in the chamber of the House of Representatives when President Franklin Roosevelt rose to decry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — "a date which will live in infamy" — and lead the United States into World War II.
Dingell, then a House page and the son of a Michigan congressman, has been around for most of the big speeches and crucial congressional debates in the seven decades since. As a congressman and a powerful committee chairman himself, he's played a key role in shaping and passing iconic legislation from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Affordable Care Act of 2009.
Now, at 87, the longest-serving congressman in American history is retiring.
He's not going quietly.
"Unfortunately, there is a lot of reason why people disapprove of the Congress and I think the reasoning is oft-times sound," Dingell said in an interview with USA TODAY's Capital Download. "We've accomplished very little. We've been engaged in all manner of small, spiteful fights." In short, he says, "we have failed to carry out our responsibilities in addressing the big issues of the day."
He faults Supreme Court decisions that have cleared the way for "huge money interests" to influence officeholders and Tea Party followers who see compromise as a dirty word. The personal relationships and political give-and-take that made landmark legislation possible increasingly are things of the past.
"A lot of these new ones here have no awareness ... of the need to work together, no awareness of the need for members to be friends off the congressional campus, no need they see in their lives to be responsible in terms of building trust and relationships to let us work together."
Has that made the job less satisfying? "It's not satisfying at all," he replies. "It's outrageous. And the result is people are not getting full value."
In his heyday, as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell held sway over major pieces of health care and environmental legislation and was known for wielding the investigative powers of his post.
"For decades, he was an imposing and intimidating presence in Congress, with colleagues and with private citizens and civil servants who were called before his oversight committee and sometimes left terrified and abused," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "He was a key figure in Democratic Party policymaking," especially on health care, although in 2008 he lost the committee chairmanship to a challenge from California Rep. Henry Waxman.
"Dingell really was a committee chairman at the time that committee chairmen ran the show," says Michael Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who worked on Dingell's committee for a year as a congressional fellow. Over time, committee chairmen began to lose power to the party leadership. "He embodies the committee system, both in its rise and its fall."
RATING THE PRESIDENTS
The people who can claim to have worked with a dozen presidents form what is surely a very exclusive club. In the interview with the weekly video newsmaker series, Dingell obliges when asked to make a quick assessment of each of the presidents he has known.
• FDR: "The giant, one of probably the three greatest" presidents in U.S. history.
• Harry Truman: "Right behind him. He saved the country." Not to mention Dingell's own life, he says. "I was scheduled to be in the first wave into Japan" as a second lieutenant in the Army during World War II, "and if it hadn't been for Harry Truman dropping the (atomic) bomb on the Japanese, I wouldn't be here talking to you today."
• Dwight Eisenhower: "A fine chairman of the board, a pretty good golfer, but didn't do much."
• John Kennedy: "Ran a very, very, very, very exciting, pleasant White House. But he was killed before he could actually show what he could do."
• Lyndon Johnson: "Johnson could say that he had largely completed the New Deal: Federal aid to education, War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, whole bunch of other things that he did."
• Richard Nixon: "Nixon in the cold light of history looks like a better president than he did when he was there. Had some considerable foresight on things like health and the environment." But Dingell cites an academic study that concluded Nixon was a paranoid schizophrenic. "If you looked at his behavior, you would have to come to the conclusion — and I speak as a layman, not as a doctor — that that was a right conclusion."
• Gerald Ford: "Gerald Ford was a good president, not to say a great president. But unfortunately he carried the pardon that he gave to Nixon, which I thought was a terrible thing but which I now think was a necessary thing. And Ford brought the country down, calmed it, settled it down."
• Jimmy Carter: "Very decent, good-hearted human being. Regrettably he could see every tree in the woods but he couldn't see the woods, and that handicapped in terms of dealing with complex legislation."
• Ronald Reagan: "I thought he was a very mediocre president. I thought he had the misfortune of being a president who showed signs of senility much earlier than it came out that he was."
• George H.W. Bush: "Accomplished decent things. He knew how to work across the aisle."
• Bill Clinton: "Delightful fellow. If Bill Clinton had not had one fault, he would have gone down as a great president." What fault? "I don't need to tell you. Ask any man or ask any woman and they'll tell you."
• George W. Bush: "I was very fond of both Bushes. ... Unfortunately George W. Bush allowed people to lie to him about Iraq and about going into battle in the Middle East. He didn't read history and he had the misfortune of being probably the least concerned and historically interested presidents in the history of the country."
• Barack Obama: "He has the misfortune of not having had the experience and not having had the scar tissue. This means that he wasn't hurt. You have to get cut up and sliced as you go through public life, and if you're not hurt, you don't get to understand what these things mean to the country and to the average guy. I don't think he really had that."
Still, Dingell predicts history will judge Obama more kindly than pundits do now, calling the Affordable Care Act "a triumph." He adds, "I think he is a very decent, good-hearted, honorable man who is trying hard but his staff is, I think, not as strong as they should be."
RUSSIAN BOARS AND WHITE MARLINS
Dingell, who once stood 6'4" tall, is known around Capitol Hill as "Big John." Now he is stooped by age, arriving for the interview leaning on a carved cane from Harrods in London. An avid hunter and fisherman, he has lined the walls of his congressional office with elk and caribou antlers, a Russian boar head and a 4-foot white marlin. Next to his desk is a photograph FDR inscribed for his father — "to John D. Dingell from his friend," Roosevelt wrote — and on a nearby shelf is the gavel Dingell Jr. used when presiding over the House as Medicare was enacted in 1965.
Southeastern Michigan has long been represented by his family. His father served in the House for 22 years. When he died, Dingell succeeded him. Now his wife, Deborah, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the seat, is favored to win it in November. Dingell says he looks forward to hunting, fishing, and spending time with his children and grandchildren.
During a lifetime of representing the Detroit area, he has been a champion of the auto industry, sometimes putting him at odds with other Democratic leaders on issues such as tougher mileage requirements. That's made the current controversy over GM's missteps in the recall of faulty ignition switches especially painful.
"I'm troubled by it, just like everybody else is, and for all the same reasons," he says. "Plus the fact that I'm a friend of the industry and I hate to see them do a poor job producing safe, desirable automobiles."'
As he exits Congress, what would he like his epitaph to read?
Dingell pauses. "He did his damndest," he finally says.