DETROIT — Dubbed “Big John” for his imposing 6-foot-3 frame and sometimes intimidating manner, former Rep. John Dingell bolstered that reputation with the head of a 500-pound wild boar that greeted visitors to his Washington office. The story behind it also helped: The Michigan Democrat is said to have felled the animal with a pistol as it charged him during a hunting trip in Soviet Georgia.
Yet the congressman — whose nearly six decades in the U.S. House made him the longest serving member of Congress in American history — was hard to typecast. An avid sportsman and hunter, he loved classical music and ballet. His first date with his wife, Debbie, whom he affectionately introduced as “the lovely Deborah,” was a performance of the American Ballet Theater.
He also amassed more than 250,000 followers on Twitter, which became an outlet for the outspoken congressman’s wry takes and quick wit.
Dingell mastered legislative deal-making but was fiercely protective of the auto industry back home in Detroit, and he was a longtime supporter of universal health care. He also was a dogged pursuer of government waste and fraud, helping take down two top presidential aides while chairman of a powerful investigative panel.
“He taught me how to shoot a rifle. I remember he said shooting a rifle is a lot like legislating,” former Ohio Rep. Dennis Eckhart told The Associated Press in 2009. “You have to be very, very sure of your target, and then when you get your chance, don’t miss.”
Dingell, who died Thursday at age 92, served in the House with every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Elected in 1955, following the sudden death of his congressman father, he had a front-row seat for the passage of landmark legislation including Medicare, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, all of which he supported, as well as the Clean Air Act, which he was accused of stalling to help auto interests. His hometown, the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, was home to a Ford Motor Co. factory that was once the largest in the world.
Yet one of his proudest moments came in 2010, when he sat next to Obama as the historic $938 billion health care overhaul was signed into law. Taking up his father’s cause, Dingell had introduced a universal health care coverage bill during each of his terms.
“Presidents come and presidents go,” former President Bill Clinton said in 2005, when Dingell celebrated 50 years in Congress. “John Dingell goes on forever.”
Dingell’s wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, said her husband died at their home in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb.
“He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather and friend,” her office said in a statement. “He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth.”