Hoyer Pays Tribute to ‘Big John’ Dingell

    Steny Hoyer traveled to Michigan last week to say goodbye to John Dingell, when the longtime Michigan congressman was on his deathbed.

    Dingell, still in good spirits, forced Hoyer to “have a Vernors ice cream float” in a toast, Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton said Thursday at a funeral for Dingell in the Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown.

    “I’m surprised you’re still with us,” Upton joked to Hoyer, the House majority leader. Vernors ginger ale, a favorite soda among Michiganders, originated in Detroit.

    Dingell’s humor was “still intact” last week, recalled Hoyer, who also spoke at the service, where current and former members of Congress and other Washington luminaries packed the pews. Dingell died in Michigan at age 92. He’s scheduled to be buried Friday in Arlington National Cemetery.

    Hoyer first arrived in Congress in 1981 to represent Maryland’s 5th District. Dingell, first elected in 1955, had already been there for more than a quarter of a century. The sometimes gruff elder congressman seemed unapproachable to the rookie from Maryland, Hoyer recalled.

    But as he got to know Dingell, he learned he was “as tender as he was tenacious.”

    Hoyer and others praised Dingell’s influential role in legislation that impacted everything from civil rights to health care and environmental protection during his 59-plus years on Capitol Hill. They also devoted plenty of time to poking fun at Dingell, who’s widely known for his sharp tongue and combative nature.

    Former House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called Dingell a “hard-driving son of a gun” and a practitioner of “tough love” who frequently prodded cigarette-loving Boehner to quit smoking.

    Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) recalled how Dingell once gaveled a committee meeting to adjournment when he knew he was about to lose a vote. “You may have the votes, but I have the gavel,” Dingell declared.

    “He never minced words; he never held back,” Hoyer said. Dingell was “at times acerbic.”

    Former President Bill Clinton called Dingell “a patriot in some cases without peer in the history of America. … He was an old-fashioned man who did things in an old-fashioned way that we should adapt for new times.”

    He also “managed to find a way to have a good time,” Clinton said.

    “I’ve been in a duck blind with [Dingell] when it was so cold the ducks wouldn’t come out,” Clinton said. “And I told him he should look on the bright side. It saved us from a lot of criticism from the animal rights people.”

    Civil rights legacy

    Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a key player in the civil rights movement, praised Dingell for supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even as Dingell faced a tough re-election challenge.

    “John voted for the bill as an act of conscience,” Lewis said.

    Dingell called that his “single most important vote,” in a 2012 interview, Time Magazine reported.

    Rocky Twyman, 70, who lives in Rockville, traveled to Washington on Thursday morning for the service. He grew up in Atlanta and has long admired Dingell for his civil rights work. “I just had to be here,” Twyman told Maryland Matters. Dingell “really did talk down those Dixiecrats. … He was just marvelous.”

    Dingell’s friends recalled during the service how his mind remained sharp, even after his health started flagging.

    “When his body wouldn’t work anymore and his mind wouldn’t stop,” Clinton said, Dingell turned to “America’s national obsession, tweeting, and became a Zen master. You should read if you haven’t, the collection of John’s greatest Twitter hits.”

    Clinton spoke to Dingell about a day before he died.

    “His mind was clear and his spirit was strong. … The idea was, you ride the horse until the ride is over,” Clinton said.

    Robin Bravender is Washington bureau chief for States Newsroom.

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