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John Dingell, 92, longest-serving member of Congress, dies

Dingell played a key role in landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Endangered Species Act.
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Former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress who played a key role in many pieces of landmark legislation, has died. He was 92. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year.

"Congressman Dingell died peacefully today at his home in Dearborn, surrounded by his wife Deborah," the office of his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, said in a statement.

"He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather, and friend," the statement said. "He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit, and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth."

Dingell first arrived to Congress in 1955, taking over the seat held by his father John Dingell, Sr., who had died earlier that year, and the younger Dingell continued to serve in the House for more than 59 years. He announced in 2014 that he would not seek re-election and instead his wife, Debbie Dingell, ran for his seat and is now serving her third term.

Image: John Dingell
In this July 27, 2011, file photo, John Dingell participates in a news conference and rally to mark the 46th anniversary of the passage of Medicare in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Debbie Dingell tweeted Wednesday, "Friends and colleagues know me and know I would be in Washington right now unless something was up. I am home with John and we have entered a new phase. He is my love and we have been a team for nearly 40 years.”

Dingell first experienced Capitol Hill as a House Page from 1938 to 1943 during which time he witnessed historic moments.

“We saw some rather great things,” he told the House Historian in an oral interview in 2012. "The President [Franklin D. Roosevelt] declared war the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor [December 8, 1941]. We saw Winston Churchill on the 26th of December, 1941, when he came to address the Congress. We saw the President give State of the Union messages, and, not infrequently, to address the Capitol or the House on other matters. It was a very enriching experience."

Dingell served in the Army during World War II and was one of the war’s last veterans to serve in Congress. After the war, he attended Georgetown University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a law degree.

Image: John Dingell obit
Congressman John Dingell in Washington on March 15, 1983.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images file

He helped sponsor the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1957, helped pass Medicare in the House and sponsored the Endangered Species Act. And while he initially support the Vietnam war, he later opposed it and called on President Richard Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops.

Dingell, who introduced his father’s universal, single-payer health insurance bill every Congress, became one of the original authors of what would become the Affordable Care Act.

Former President Barack Obama awarded Dingell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, saying the congressman "built a peerless record of his own" over the course of six decades.

"He gaveled in the vote for Medicare, helped lead the fight for the Civil Rights Act. For more than half a century, in every single Congress, John introduced a bill for comprehensive health care. That is, until he didn't have to do it anymore. I could not have been prouder to have John by my side when I signed the Affordable Care Act into law," Obama said at the time.

Obama said in a statement Thursday night that "John Dingell's life reminds us that change does not always come with a flash, but instead with steady, determined effort. Over the course of the longest congressional career in history, John led the charge on so much of the progress we take for granted today."

Dingell also chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee for several terms where he was an imposing figure who grilled witnesses, often powerful corporate leaders — but lost the gavel to former Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who contended that Dingell slowed environmental legislation because of his ties to the auto industry.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on Thursday night called Dingell "my dear friend" and said his wife has been carrying on his legacy in Congress. "I know that all of us in Michigan are sending her and their family and many friends our love and support at this time," Stabenow said.

"Congressman John Dingell — the Dean of the House and my dear friend — was not merely a witness to history. He was a maker of it," Stabenow said.

Image: Barack Obama, John Dingell
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Dingell at the White House on November 14, 2014.Christy Bowe / ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images file

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the state of Michigan lost one of its greatest leaders. "The Congressman's grit, humility and humor taught us all that we can disagree without being disagreeable, while still finding common ground and working together to get things done."

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement: "Today, we have lost a beloved pillar of the Congress and one of the greatest legislators in American history."

"His leadership will endure in the lives of the millions of American families he touched," Pelosi said. "We hope it is a comfort to Chairman Dingell’s beloved wife, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, and their entire family that so many mourn their loss and pray for them at this sad time."

Former President George W. Bush said in a statement that he spoke with Dingell Thursday afternoon. "I thanked him for his service to our country and for being an example to those who have followed him into the public arena," Bush said.

Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton said, "There are few major legislative triumphs since 1955 that John didn’t have a key hand in passing."

After his congressional career, Dingell developed a new reputation for being a prolific and hilarious tweeter.

"Wife is working late tonight. Might eat ice cream for dinner. #YOLO," he said in one tweet.

He tweeted in 2014, "Staff has now informed me of what a Kardashian is. I'm only left with more questions."

Dingell also posted tweets mocking his old age. "Golly. You don't tweet for a week or two & you start getting calls at the house asking if you're still kicking. Old people have lives, too."

"Tried to watch @meetthepress and there was a damn soccer game on instead. What is this @chucktodd? I didn't fight in the Revolutionary War to have to watch soccer on a Sunday morning, @chucktodd."