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Much of the wall decor in the third-floor Rayburn office that has served as Rep. John D. Dingell’s Capitol Hill headquarters for 23 years would be better suited to a hunting lodge.
There’s the head of an antelope the Michigan Democrat shot in Wyoming, a nod to the prairie landscape he long ago patrolled as a park ranger. A striking albino deer is mounted in another corner, and a Michigan whitetail that Dingell took down to win a hunting bet with a Presbyterian preacher hangs near the door.
“His deer had 21 points, and he couldn’t believe it,” Congress’ longest-serving member recalled in a recent interview, as he gazed up at the buck. “This is only an eight-pointer, but he outweighed the other deer, so I won.”
Nearly a dozen of Dingell’s trophy kills surround the suite and each has a story. The 29-term congressman will clear out all the mementos — the beautiful 4-foot white marlin, gigantic elk and caribou antlers, stuffed ducks and mallard decoys — at year’s end, when he retires.
“Things Deborah won’t let me have in the house, that’s what you see here,” Dingell joked, referring to his wife, whose face smiles from a few framed pictures in the office. “Had I been a bachelor, I’d have had a bunch of this hanging at home.”
The snarling head of a Russian boar might not mesh with his wife’s interior decor, but it represents “a hell of a hunt,” according to Dingell. The 87-year-old, who once sat on the board of the National Rifle Association, shot the wild beast six times with a .44 revolver, but “the bullets were breaking apart.”
“They’ve got a shoulder like a tank. ... He almost got me,” Dingell said, planting his wooden cane firmly into the carpeting. “I put the last round between his two shoulder blades.”
There are no guns in his current office, but Dingell once kept a copy of the 1769 Charleville musket that the Marquis de Lafayette fired during the Revolutionary War in his Capitol Hill quarters. He’s occupied four Rayburn offices since 1965, according to the House Clerk’s Office of History, Art and Archives.
He spent his first decade in Congress on the sixth floor of Longworth, which was the newest of the House office buildings when he arrived in 1955.
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.
“That’s one of the problems you run into,” he said. “A lot of members don’t get out because they can’t figure out what the hell they’re going to do with all this nonsense when they’re gone.”