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Planning Dingell’s Gala: No Detail Was Too Small

When it came time to capture her husband’s 50 years in Congress, Debbie Dingell left few stones unturned.

One night in July, in the wee hours, when Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) was mired in the details of the energy bill, his wife set to work “going through the files” in his Rayburn Building office in search of photographs and other artifacts to help commemorate his half-century of public service.

What she found was a veritable treasure trove of historical items: correspondence from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, pens from bill signings’ past, assorted White House Christmas cards.

“I’m just trying to find out what his history is,” Debbie Dingell said, adding that in the course of her research she was surprised to learn the extent to which her husband had been involved in the early civil rights movement. “We’re not trying to make this into the Taj Mahal.”

Although Dingell’s official 50th anniversary isn’t until until Dec. 13, a tribute celebration, expected to draw about 1,000 attendees, will take place Wednesday at the National Building Museum. (The date was moved up to accommodate the Congressional schedule.)

Nearly a dozen VIPs, including Vice President Cheney, who served in the House with Dingell, and former President Bill Clinton, will headline the program, which will be followed by a reception. Every Member of Congress has been invited, Debbie Dingell said.

“I don’t know of anyone not going,” gushed one senior House Democratic aide. “It’s the hot ticket.”

The effort to honor Dingell officially got under way in early summer, when former Dingell aide John Orlando, now a lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters, WPP executive vice president for public relations/public affairs Howard Paster and Mike Berman of the Duberstein Group launched the Committee to Honor John Dingell, an unincorporated association formed to raise money for and coordinate the Washington, D.C., event, and a similar celebration for constituents and Dingell friends at the Dearborn Performing Arts Center in Michigan held earlier this month.

“Over the years, there have been very few interests … that Dingell has not, quite frankly, worked with or worked against,” said Dennis Fitzgibbons, DaimlerChrysler’s director of public policy and a former top Dingell aide, who is helping with the tribute. “Even many of those people who have worked against him … have contributed.”

In light of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Orlando said the committee reviewed its planned activities “to see whether there was frivolity, excesses and decided that given that this is a simple program of testimonials as to John Dingell’s 50 years and counting of public service … we should go forward.”

To date, Orlando said the committee, with the help of a loose network of lobbyists, former Dingell colleagues, ex-staffers and other friends, has raised “several hundred thousand dollars,” from individuals and businesses, including General Motors and Ford, though he said an exact amount would not be available until after the event. Contributions were limited to $25,000. (The Committee to Honor John Dingell retained counsel and received approval for its activities from the House ethics committee.)

It has been more than a decade since the last House Member, the late Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), marked 50 years in office in November 1991. Assuming all goes well and the 79-year-old Dingell is still serving in December, he’ll become just the third House Member in history to have spent half a century in the chamber.

Needless, to say, there wasn’t much of a model to turn to for guidance on how to put together such a tribute.

“A lot happened in this country in 50 years,” Orlando said.

Notably, the year Dingell first came to Congress — 1955 — the polio vaccine had just been discovered, Disneyland opened and “Rock Around the Clock” was the No. 1 song in the nation. His service has spanned the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the launch of the environmental movement, the fall of Communism and now the conflict in Iraq, among many other historic events.

To capture all this history, Dingell’s campaign committee hired a researcher to create an expansive timeline detailing the life and legislative accomplishments of the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Dingell “sat down and did a very long interview with the researcher … to fill in the blanks,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime media consultant to Dingell’s re-election campaigns.

The resulting document, titled “Dingell’s Drive in Five Decades of Progress,” helped inform the 48-page color program book to be distributed at the event Wednesday and a tribute video, said Dunn, who produced the 13-minute film.

Organizers also are turning to invitees to add color to the official history. Would-be guests have been asked to e-mail their favorite Dingell stories, which Debbie Dingell is collecting in a notebook to be presented to the Congressman.

This week, several Democrats are also expected to deliver floor speeches honoring Dingell, with Republicans also planning to “appropriately commemorate” his service, according to a spokeswoman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). And on Oct. 28, the Michigan AFL-CIO is hosting a labor tribute to Dingell in Dearborn.

As for what Dingell thinks of all the preparations surrounding his anniversary celebration, his wife suggested he’d rather forgo the fuss altogether.

“He absolutely doesn’t want to commemorate that in any way,” she said. But she added, matter-of-factly: “He has no choice.”

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