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Dingell Celebrates 50 Years in House

On Wednesday night, the man alternately known as “Big John,” “Mr. Chairman” and husband to the “lovely Deborah” stood amid a clutch of friends at the National Building Museum and declared himself, quite simply, “overwhelmed.”

All these people, here, to honor a half-century in the House for Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) — well, Dingell reckoned, “That’s all I can say,” though he still flung his arm around the inquiring reporter, as is his custom. Dingell officially hits the Congressional 5-0 on Dec. 13. He’s currently the third-longest serving House Member in history.

The stomachs of official Washington, D.C., may have been roiling — either with fear or nervous excitement — about the possibility of upcoming indictments in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. But inside the museum, there was nary a hint of that drama.

On stage, Vice President Cheney, usually the king of public unflappability, plodded through a glowing tribute to Dingell without a flinch, even joking at one point that he was invited to “add a little charisma to the program.”

Off stage, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card was practically giddy with Dingellmania. Though Dingell had told interviewer Charlie Rose just a week earlier that the Bush administration was the “worst … since Caligula,” Card’s affection hadn’t appreciably dimmed. Boy, that Dingell, he said — what a “great ally” he’d been back when Card was Secretary of Transportation. Dingell is one of “my most respected” Members, a smiling Card asserted.

There were some modest signs of partisanship: Perhaps the most pointed comment of the evening came when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) ended his speech with the hope that “one year from now the rest of the country will be calling you Mr. Chairman.” (Dingell is currently ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.)

Meanwhile, a glib former President Bill Clinton got in a few cloaked jabs at the GOP, but generally seemed more interested in Dingell’s durability as a political commodity than in tweaking Republicans.

“I’ve often wondered, you know, if John gets the list of every baby born in his district and he sends them some sort of pill that puts something in their DNA, you know, that just makes them wedded to him,” Clinton told the audience, almost wistfully, before quickly adding: “You know the great thing about not being in office, you can say whatever you want. The tragic thing is nobody gives a damn.”

Laughs all around.

Both on and off stage, Dingell was remembered as a tireless defender of the auto industry and the environment, a supporter of civil rights legislation and champion of universal health care, and as a powerful former chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel, whose gavel and “Dingellgrams” struck fear into the hearts of many.

Dingell, declared American Enterprise Institute scholar and Roll Call contributing writer Norm Ornstein, provides “such an interesting contrast between a pitbull and a pussycat.”

Nearly every speaker paid homage to Dingell’s partnership with his wife, Debbie Dingell, who got almost as much mention on stage as Dingell himself.

And where was she?

“Look for the crowd,” Dingell had advised earlier. And he was right. His petite, blonde wife was everywhere, it seemed — being interviewed by a Detroit NBC affiliate, kissing her godson, posing for snapshots.

The event also brought out some unusual characters, including septuagenarian corporate shareholder activist Evelyn Davis, with her fourth (and quarter-century younger) husband, James Patterson, in tow.

Davis, who sported a lime-green suede jacket, was busy shaking hands with political heavyweights such as Kennedy and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), showing off her arm candy, and ruminating on the injustices of society’s gender prejudices. “If a man can marry a younger woman, why can’t a woman marry a younger man?” she mused.

But back to Dingell.

Throughout the night, several attendees also invoked the Wolverine State Representative’s legendary enthusiasm for guns and hunting. There was Father Bill George, president of Georgetown Prep (Dingell’s alma mater), relaying how the young Dingell and his brother had once kept a .22-caliber rifle in their golf bag to shoot trespassing squirrels while on the links. And Stuart Bernstein, the dapper former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, said Dingell had “taught [him] to shoot” before he was posted to the Scandinavian nation. “I love him — and I’m a Republican,” he gushed.

Of course, Dingell’s reputation as a sportsman could also serve an intimidating purpose. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said the combination of large hunting trophies on the wall and “Guns & Ammo” magazines scattered on the floor was enough to keep him from asking for a seat on Energy and Commerce on his first visit to Dingell’s office as a prospective Member in the late 1980s. “I’m just here to say, ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’” Engel recalled telling Dingell then.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes Dingell received Wednesday night was from the bow-tied political satirist Mark Russell.

“I have never uttered his name on stage,” Russell deadpanned. “He’s done nothing for my act.”

But then, Russell remembered Dingell’s hard-fought 2002 primary against Rep. Lynn Rivers (D), after Michigan’s Republican legislature drew lines that threw them into the same district. There was this editorial cartoon of Dingell mooning Rivers, you see, which had inspired a great “Moon River” ditty. “I forgot about that,” Russell laughed.

And what was veteran TV prognosticator John McLaughlin’s forecast for the 79-year-old Congressman’s future?

“I predict we’ll be back in 10 years for the 60th,” he harrumphed.