Dingell has occupied four offices in the Rayburn Building since 1965. His current, third-floor perch is full of mementos that display his passions and his humor.
Dingell’s very first home on the Hill was in the Capitol basement, where he spent his teenage years toiling as a House page. Down there, his weapon of choice was an air gun. Dingell remembers prowling the halls “with some page-boy friends, with a rat terrier and an air gun to shoot rats in the Capitol basement,” noting, “You can’t do that anymore.”
In those days, Dingell also used to enjoy hunting expeditions at the chief page’s home. “In exchange for a half-day of work on his farm, he’d let us hunt squirrels and turkeys ... later in the afternoon,” he recalled.
During his tenure as a congressional page, he first encountered President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man Dingell calls his “greatest hero.”
Roosevelt’s bronze bust has a prominent place in Dingell’s office, not far from the gavel he wielded when presiding over the 2010 House vote on the Affordable Care Act that he helped write.
Seeing a health care overhaul enacted was a lifelong goal for Dingell, and for his heroes. Roosevelt campaigned on the universal right to adequate medical care. Dingell’s father, Rep. John Dingell Sr., carried a national health insurance proposal into the 1950s, and the younger Dingell continued to introduce the act when he took his late father’s seat.
Across the office sits the yellowish gavel Dingell used when presiding over the House vote to enact Medicare in 1965.
“It was made of a piece of wood that came out of a great big English elm that supposedly was planted on the Capitol grounds by George Washington when he laid the cornerstone of the Capitol,” Dingell explained.
Other tokens represent Dingell’s work on behalf of conservation. The man responsible for the Safe Drinking Water Act says he “stole” some photos from the shores of the Potomac River. Another wildlife photo shows a slice of the marshland he helped preserve by sponsoring legislation to build North America’s first international wildlife refuge.
Dingell has framed a White House letter thanking him for serving 25 years on the Interior Department’s Migratory Bird Conservation Commission. He keeps a bronze cast of a paw print of a Sumatran tiger on a nearby table — a gift he received for his work on the Endangered Species Act.
Nearby is a close-up photo of four men sporting camouflage on a grassy shoreline. The lineup includes the 6-foot-3-inch congressman and President Bill Clinton, whom Dingell took duck hunting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“Everything was frozen as a rock, and only one duck was out,” he said. “The president shot him, and everybody will take an oath to that.” Clinton later presented Dingell with a duck statue. He keeps the fowl in a cabinet “so it won’t fly away.”
Dingell’s humor is on display in the assortment of framed political cartoons. One pokes fun at his Polish heritage. Another, hanging near the parking spot for his motorized scooter, reads: “The older I get, the better seniority seems to work.”
When asked what will happen to the collection he’s amassed from his successes as a lawmaker, conservationist and outdoorsman when he leaves the halls of Congress, Dingell found another joke.