In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat, Rock Around the Clock hit the top of the music charts, and John Dingell was elected to Congress. The 29-year-old lawyer won a special election to replace his father, who died in office, and won a full term of his own the following year. On Feb. 11 after 26 more elections the Michigan Democrat became the longest-serving House member in U.S. history. Dingell, now 82, spoke with TIME about his early days in Washington, the crisis in the American automobile industry and how he does not want to be remembered.
Your father was a U.S. Representative before you, so in a way you grew up around Congress. What was your first memory of the Capitol?
It's one that sticks with me. The first memory I have was entering the House chamber through the East door. It was the biggest door I had ever gone through. It also was the biggest chamber I had ever seen. Remember, I was six years of age. I had never been in a place like this. I was a working-class kid from a Polish neighborhood in Detroit, and this was quite an event for me. I've only begun in later years to appreciate what it all meant.
How has Congress changed since you arrived?
When I started I had four staff members and I had four typewriters. If I wanted more, I had to buy them myself. I had one paid trip per year, round-trip. So I brought the family down here about the first of January, and I brought them home when the Congress adjourned, usually about the first of August.
Today, we're Tuesday through Thursday; we can fly home any time. As a result the Congress doesn't get to know each other the way they used to.
What do you make of all this attention you're getting? You've said it's a "curse" that people often remember lawmakers for how long they've spent in office.
If I had just stayed here for the number of years I've stayed here and hadn't done anything, there wouldn't be much to celebrate. But I've been a pretty good member and I've worked hard and I've gotten a lot of legislation through. I've done a lot of things for the people I serve and for the country. I'd rather be remembered for that than for the length of time I've served.
You've worked with 11 Presidents on the job so far. How is President Obama stacking up?
I think very well. There hasn't been any time wasted while he was getting down to being President. He's done a good job in selecting his cabinet. He's doing a very good job in presenting his case. And the people like him. (See Obama's White House.)
You've been a champion of the auto industry your entire career. How did it fall into such bad shape?
There are a lot of reasons. Currency manipulations by the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. They've not enforced NAFTA or the trade laws. And the fact we don't have national health insurance.
American cars have $750 worth of steel in them, and they have $1,600 worth of health care. And if you look, all of our competitors have national health insurance. If we had that $1,600 go to the American manufacturers, you'd see us having the flushest automobile manufacturers in the world.
You've had other jobs besides lawmaker. You were also a park ranger during college and law school.
I spent four years at Rocky Mountain National Park and one year at Mount Rainier. I did all kinds of things, I was what they called a utility ranger. I did trail patrol work, I trapped bears, I blew beaver dams, I was a speed cop, I was a garbage man. It was a wonderful job hell, I would have paid to have done what I did there. But I didn't have any money, so I was glad when they paid me instead.
You've seen a lot of history since arriving in Washington. Are you more or less hopeful about the country's future now than you've been in the past?
Well, I'm always hopeful. I think this is a great country, and we have a great Constitution. We have, as you know, severe challenges. The recession we're in is the worst I've seen since the Great Depression. I was a kid during the Great Depression, it was a terrible time. Now, is it the same? No. Are there parallels? Yes. Are the parallels scary? You darn bet.
But I have great faith in the country. We've survived some terrible, terrible challenges. And I think we can do it again.
Can the people of Michigan's 15th District expect to see you on the ballot again in 2010?
I don't have any idea. When that time comes, Deborah and I sit down and we decide what the people of the 15th want, we decide what the good Lord wants, and then we decide what we want. That's a decision I make every two years, and I don't make it before the right time.