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Larger Than Life

Acknowledging the congressional giants of bygone eras tends to be much easier than recognizing the larger-than-life qualities of those who still walk among us.

But as I sat in the audience that overflowed the mammoth National Building Museum on October 26, and I listened to the tributes to and accomplishments of Rep. John Dingell, I couldn't shake the feeling of being in the presence of greatness.

I almost had the sense that the late Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and the late Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, two of the 20th century's most heralded members of Congress, were smiling and nodding at the recognition of one of their peers, even if he is from Michigan.

I've watched "Big John" Dingell, who this week officially marked his 50th anniversary as a member of the U.S. House, for just over 30 years, and I've gotten to know him a bit more over the past 10.

But many of the wonderful stories I heard that night were new to me: The son of a congressman, Dingell was a House page from 1938 to 1943. He was on the House floor on December 8, 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Less than four years later, he was a second lieutenant in the Army and was in a unit slated to be in the first wave of troops to invade Japan, if that country had not surrendered.

But Dingell hasn't settled for just having a front-row seat to watch history being made. He's had a big hand in its making.

Dingell, a Democrat who balances his steadfast advocacy for his home state's automobile industry with a lifelong hunter's passion for protecting the environment, was a primary force behind enactment of the National Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act of 1965, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act of 1977, the Safe Drinking Water Amendments of 1986, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Closer to home, he was also responsible for securing federal funds to clean up the Rouge River, said to be one of the dirtiest waterways in the nation, and to create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Dingell has left his mark on a host of other issues. He was an early and strong advocate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of Medicare, two of the most important pieces of legislation of the last century. He also played a key role on many smaller issues that affect everyone's daily life, like the creation of the National Do Not Call Registry for keeping telemarketers at bay.

The Dingell stories told at the gala honoring him -- told before and after the program, as well as from the stage -- were priceless, sometimes touching, and often nearly hysterical. But quite a few, I suspect, would have been less amusing to the hapless corporate executives who Dingell felt had taken advantage of the public or to the government officials whom he saw as unresponsive to his requests for information about their agencies' actions -- or inactions.

Sitting in front that night were some 200 members of the House and Senate. Behind them were almost a thousand lobbyists, journalists, current or former Hill staffers, and agency officials. Everyone I talked with seemed to feel that the event was truly special, an evening to be remembered and savored, despite calendars chock-full of lesser gatherings that cannot be ducked.

Very, very few men or women have accomplished anywhere near as much as John Dingell. And fewer still of the greats are around today, let alone still hard at work.

The accolades delivered that night came from Vice President Cheney; former President Clinton; House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas; Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; and, from Dingell's home state of Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.

Sitting in the audience, I remembered what I've read about how the towering congressional leaders of yesteryear -- Rayburn, Russell, and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson -- maneuvered in the cloakrooms and hallways of Capitol Hill. Then I thought about how fortunate I've been to watch one of the few remaining redwoods left in the forest.

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