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Congress pauses to remember its longest serving member, John Dingell

Dingell eulogized by his former House colleagues: Hoyer, Boehner, Upton and Lewis

Rep. John Lewis attends the funeral mass for former Rep. John Dingell at Holy Trinity Church Feb. 14, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Rep. John Lewis attends the funeral mass for former Rep. John Dingell at Holy Trinity Church Feb. 14, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the last 24 hours of his long life, John D. Dingell, 92, was visited by a few old friends and House colleagues. One of them was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who eulogized Congress’ longest-serving member Thursday, and recalled that even in his final hours, Dingell “was in command.”

“We talked for an hour about what was, what had been and what should be,” Hoyer said at Dingell’s second funeral Thursday.

Congress paused to celebrate the former dean of the House, even though it had a busy schedule Thursday that included voting on an appropriations package averting a Saturday government shutdown.

Most members of Congress missed Dingell’s first funeral Tuesday in Dearborn, Michigan, after their flight was diverted back to Washington due to bad weather. But on Thursday, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington was full of Dingell’s former colleagues.

Watch: John Lewis’ full eulogy to John Dingell in 8 minutes

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Hoyer was one of four of those House colleagues to eulogize Dingell, along with former Republican Speaker John A. Boehner and Reps. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, and John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat.

Upton and Lewis had been scheduled to give their eulogies at the Dearborn service before the bad weather diverted their flight. House chaplain Patrick J. Conroy, who was scheduled to preach in Dearborn but also didn’t make it due to the bad weather, led Thursday’s service.

Former President Bill Clinton — who sat to the right of Dingell’s wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, during the service, while his wife Hillary was to her left — was the closing eulogist.

“Don’t you think we owe it to john? Let’s be honest,” Clinton said, speaking to all of the lawmakers who worked with Dingell over the years. “One of the reasons none of us would’ve missed this — this is the only time in our entire lives in public service that we were in the same room with John Dingell and got the last word.”

‘Exquisite example of affection’

Clinton spoke about Dingell’s more abrasive side, saying anyone close to him would recall “getting your hide ripped off from time to time”

“You have to understand, that’s the mark of an honest friendship,” he said. “Both of us have experienced this exquisite example of affection. I liked it. He never snuck around behind your back. He didn’t say one thing to your face and then call somebody to get a little press to do something else.”

Dingell learned to express his candor in different ways after his retirement from Congress.

“When his body wouldn’t work anymore and his mind wouldn’t stop, he turned to America’s national obsession, tweeting, and became a Zen master,” Clinton said.

Dingell’s tweets comprised “few words, much wisdom,” Clinton said.

The former president noted that Dingell was “doing” until his last day on Earth. “He was so busy doing things he didn’t have time to write his memoirs until he was over 90,” he said.

In bringing up the former dean of the House’s record-breaking 59-year congressional career, Clinton read a passage from Dingell’s memoir noting the record was “something that seems to impress a lot of people. I am not one of them. Quite frankly I don’t care about records. Any fool can sit in the chair and take up space.”

Watch: ‘He broke every single record’: Upton praises Dingell at funeral

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After he repeated that last phrase of Dingell’s words, Clinton took a long pause, perhaps thinking of the current occupant of his former office, and laughter erupted in the church.

“It is what you do with your time that matters,” Clinton concluded Dingell’s thoughts.

‘Led the way … got in the way’

Clinton, Hoyer, Boehner, Upton and Lewis spoke about what Dingell did with that time.

“He taught us. He led the way. He got in the way,” Lewis said. “And from time to time he got us into what I call good trouble.”

Lewis spoke about one of Dingell’s historic votes — supporting the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He did so despite “facing a very, very tough re-election” in a district that had been recently redrawn to exclude a large portion of the black population.

“John did not run from his decision or try to explain away his vote,” Lewis said. “He stood on the courage of his conviction and won that primary by 5,000 votes. People respect you when you stand up for what you believe.”

Dingell commanded that respect from both sides of the aisle, Boehner said.

“A mentor to many of us who served in the Congress, John was revered by Democrats and Republicans alike,” the Ohio Republican said.

The former speaker noted that two Republicans, Upton and former Texas Rep. Joe Barton — who like Dingell had chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee — suggested Boehner rename the panel’s hearing room after Dingell.

Upton during his speech also spoke about Dingell’s willingness to work across the aisle.

“Bipartisan, he wrote the book. He really did,” the Michigan Republican said. “He nudged us all to work close together.”

‘Great legislator’

Boehner talked about Dingell’s legislative record, both in things he helped pass and “big mistakes” he helped stop.

“He was a great legislator, not just because he was a shrewd negotiator or a master tactician or hard driving son of a gun,” Boehner said. “He was all of those things.”

Hoyer listed some of the may historic votes Dingell took: his support of the 2010 health care law, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, civil rights, voting right and support for all working families.

“And in particular, of course, Michigan’s auto workers,” he said. “The list of legislation shaped by his hands stretches long as his unrivaled tenure.”

But as Boehner noted, that record Dingell forged was not done with all honey and no vinegar.

“He was a practitioner of what you might call tough love,” Boehner said.

Hoyer recalled one instance of that tough love: “He once gaveled a committee meeting to adjournment right before he was about to lose the vote, declaring, ‘You may have the votes but I have the gavel.’ And more often than not, he ultimately got the votes too.”

Dingell was “tenacious” and he never minced words, Hoyer said.

“Many have known his fierce and biting judgment,” he said. “Many too will recall, as has been said, his gentle soul.”

Hoyer talked about his visit to Dingell last Wednesday, the day before he died, and the 2 1/2 hours they spent together.

“Before I left I kissed him on the forehead and told him, ‘I love you, John.’ And I knew I spoke for all of his colleagues as well,” he said, noting Dingell knew the end was nearing.

“But even at the threshold of death, he was in command. He was concerned. He was ready for the next day, the next tweet, the text fight,” Hoyer said. “As Debbie said, ‘He was classic John Dingell.’ And that is how I will always remember him.”

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