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20,997 days, 57 years, 25,000 votes: Dingell becomes longest-serving member of Congress

On Friday, Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan added another achievement next to his name in the history books, serving his 20,997th day on Capitol Hill to become the longest-serving member of Congress ever. 

Rep. John Dingell joins The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd to reflect on his record breaking years serving Congress, touching on his time working with eleven presidents and eleven Speakers of the House.

In his 57 years in Congress, Dingell has worked with 11 presidents, 11 speakers of the House, cast more than 25,000 votes, and served as the chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Dingell won his first seat in a sad turn of events for the 29-year-old. His father, John Dingell Sr., had served in Congress for 22 years before his death from tuberculosis. Then a small town lawyer, it was a tragedy he never anticipated. But in the end, he says his tenure should be judged on his effectiveness, not his longevity. 

“It’s not how long, it’s how well,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd in an interview for “The Daily Rundown” this week in his Rayburn office. “I’ve done my best.” 

He’s seen the representative body change and evolve during his many years, but what he laments most is the loss of comity and collegiality. 

“There’s a lot of ill will, nastiness, unpleasantness, lack of understanding, hatred, and irritation today,” said Dingell. “And truthfully, I think it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.” 

And with members eager to avoid the stigma of “going Washington,” Dingell says their flurry to leave town, even without their work completed, is another change he’d like to see reversed. 

“Members hit this town and on Monday, to make a 6:30 vote and they’re already inquire about how they’re gonna get a 6:30 plane out on Friday or Thursday to go home,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘We oughta be back home.’ That’s totally wrong. We oughta be here, working on the nation’s business. We oughta not be fighting. We oughta be talking about how we come together.” 

The loss of bipartisanship affection hasn’t been lost on the senior lawmaker, though. He says he’s enjoyed good relationships with many Republicans across the aisle, and  has admired many of the chief executives from both parties. 

Dingell called fellow Michigander Gerald Ford his favorite Republican president, a “gentleman” who was dealt a bad hand after the resignation of Richard Nixon, and after facing a 1976 primary fight from Ronald Reagan, was left crippled.

“This was a decent man who was trying do good and to be a decent president,” said Dingell. “He was killed by the far right.  He'd have probably won that election.  But he lost.” 

His favorite president though was one he didn’t serve with, but got to witness in action. Serving as a House page, Dingell witnessed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic address to Congress and declaration of war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor .

“[Roosevelt] saved the country from the Depression, saved the country from the real threat of going communist, won World War II, and-- and it was a war we could've lost,” he said. “ And then he laid the design for lasting world peace.” 

Dingell named Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn his favorite speaker, but had kind words for current Speaker of the House John Boehner, calling the Ohio Republican a “really a fine individual,” who “if could get his party to follow him,” would be far more effective. 

“Power is a very strange thing. First of all, to be a leader, you’ve got to be a leader.  But second of all to be a leader, you’ve got have followers.  John Boehner's problem is, he doesn't have followers,” said Dingell. “Everybody says, ‘This Congress is so busy with the Democrats fighting Republicans.’  There are no Democrats fighting Republicans.  It's Republicans fighting Democrats.  Or rather, fighting Republicans.  They don't have time to fiddle with us Democrats.”

His proudest accomplishment during his nearly six decades in Congress was helping usher through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- a controversial vote that nearly cost him his job in a contentious primary that fall against fellow Rep. John Lesinski.

“We solved a terrible, searing problem,” said Dingell. “We were dealing with the issue and we’d say, ‘Why is it, explain to us that a white man should be able to vote, and a black man, who’s also a citizen, cannot?’ And the people responded fairly. They said, ‘They’re not. You’re right.’”

Every year, Dingell, like his father before him, would introduce a universal health care bill at the beginning of each new Congress. And in 2010, he finally saw a form of that become law. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed him to gavel the final vote. In fact, that same gavel now sits in his office.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., is celebrated by friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill, Friday, June 7, 2013, as he becomes the longest-serving member of Congress in history with his 20,997th day as a representative.

Dingell says he wished the Affordable Care Act had passed in a more bipartisan fashion, but said even slipping poll numbers on the public’s confidence in the legislation doesn’t undermine its positive aspects. “Frankly, we tried every which way to invite our Republican colleagues to participate, because we knew that the bill would not become law with good will and we’d not have the public trust if we didn’t do that,” said Dingell.

“But if you look, you will find there’s a tremendous wave of public trust. First of all, there’s a number of rights that citizens are given, no more pre-existing conditions to deny you healthcare. No more can they cancel your healthcare because you get sick. No more they can kick your kid off the policy until he’s 26. Those things are important.”

Looking back, Dingell said he never anticipated a career in politics when he was younger, having a small law practice and even working as a park ranger before he ran for his father’s seat.

“I had a great little law practice firm I ran. And I quite frankly made a better living then than I ever did since,” he laughed. “I had more time for the family. Had more time to hunt and fish and do the things I liked to do.”

Dignell’s office is dotted with deer and elk he’s shot himself, and as a longtime hunter he’s championed gun rights and seen support from the National Rifle Association. But now, he even admits the gun lobby may have become too partisan.

“I’ve got to say, I think they’ve done so far to the right that I don’t think they have the ability to compromise,” said Dingell. “They have honest concerns. They’re deathly far somebody’s out to take away their guns. And that’s a very, very deep concern for everybody, that includes me.”

Will Dingell make it 59 or even 60 years in office? The 82-year-old lawmaker says that’s a conversation he has every January of an election year with his wife, Debbie, a top auto lobbyist.

“There’s always something to be done. … And there’s always some public need to be met. Or you can do things to help people and– and make the country better.  That’s why we’re here,” Dingell said.

“I’ve got a wonderful wife and I wanna see to it that she is happy. … And when she gets tired of this business, and the burden -- let me tell you something. The burden in this job is not on the officeholder.”

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