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Remembering John Dingell and His 'Last Words for America'

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"His dramatic final words to the nation delivered via the Post --- succinct and meaningful --- told us a lot about the outstanding public servant we lost," writes Jane Harman on the passing of Rep. John Dingell.

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Like many Americans, I was deeply moved by the final op-ed from John Dingell (John Dingell: My last words for America) that appeared in The Washington Post the day after we lost Congress’s longest-serving member. The Post reports that he “dictated these reflections to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), at their home in Dearborn, on Feb. 7, the day he died.”Having served with him for 17 years in the House of Representatives, I’m not surprised to learn that John was thinking about the country and institution he loved right up to his final moments. When I was a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, John was chair – and a role model for the ages. I am so fortunate to have known him as both mentor and friend.

His dramatic final words to the nation – succinct and meaningful – told us a lot about the outstanding public servant we lost:

The piece revealed his wit and wisdom…

“One of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.”

His ability to remain current while not sacrificing depth…

“And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.”

When writing about progress achieved, he made clear his understanding of the long arc of history and the importance of bipartisanship…

“All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.”

Of course, he reminded us of his love for his partner in life and in public service, Debbie, and expressed it in a manner that spoke to a cause near and dear to many of our hearts, the advancement of women in Congress…

“But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).”

Finally, he reminded us in no uncertain terms of the sacred trust those of us who hold or who have held public office must aspire and recommit to daily…

“In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).”

On behalf of my colleagues at the Wilson Center, I offer sincere and heartfelt condolences to Debbie and all of John’s family and friends. In not just words, but also through a lifetime of deeds, John Dingell has left a legacy that challenges, instructs, inspires, and will outlive us all.

Jane Harman
Washington, DC
February 12, 2019

About the Author

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Jane Harman

Distinguished Fellow and President Emerita, Wilson Center

Jane Harman, Distinguished Fellow and President Emerita, Wilson Center, is an internationally recognized authority on U.S. and global security issues, foreign relations and lawmaking. A native of Los Angeles and a public-school graduate, she went on to become a nine-term member of Congress, serving decades on the major security committees in the House of Representatives. Drawing upon a career that has included service as President Carter’s Secretary of the Cabinet and hundreds of diplomatic missions to foreign countries, Harman holds posts on nearly a dozen governmental and non-governmental advisory boards and commissions.

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