OLIVER: A birthday wish for John Dingell (and good riddance)

Go, and make Washington more civil with your departure

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After 127 years in Washington, Rep. John D. Dingell, who turns 88 today, has decided to call it quits. Actually, it’s only been 59 years. It just seems longer.

“I don’t want people to say I stayed too long,” Mr. Dingell said, displaying a now greatly impaired sense of timing.

He claims the current climate on Capitol Hill is “obnoxious.” It will improve.

The Michigan Democrat was infamous for his dirty tactics: Put the prey on the stand, grill him mercilessly, make him suffer, leak to the media. You can find the details of two sordid cases on the Internet — look under Ann Gorsuch Burford, President Reagan’s EPA head, or Nobel laureate David Baltimore.

The pre-1995 Mr. Dingell was a rabid dog, an egotistical, power-crazed subpoena-issuing committee chairman — and then the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, and he lost his chairmanship, and with it the ability to issue subpoenas.

I was a Dingell target once, but I was lucky.

In 1988, when I was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, I gave a speech in which, probably injudiciously, I described Congress as the “realm of the sugar plum fairies doing business as Candy Land USA.”

A few weeks later (after more than a quarter of a century some, but not all, the details have faded), Mr. Dingell sent word demanding my presence. I complied, as was customary when a congressman asks for a meeting. I and my aide went to Mr. Dingell’s office, having no idea what he was up to — but it was a safe bet he wasn’t serving the cause of good government. The two of us and his aide were seated in a room in his office. Mr. Dingell came in and remained standing. He was agitated and irritated.

He asked who had written the speech I had given. I, probably injudiciously, shot up my hand and said, “I did.”

Mr. Dingell paused, fumed and shook. “You little pipsqueak!” he shouted, and continued in that extraordinary manner for a few minutes. It was a stunningly rude performance by a stunningly rude man.

I got out of my chair. I went up to him and stood in front of his face as close as a drill sergeant stands to a scared recruit. I stared at him and said, “Don’t you ever speak to me that way again.” Shaking, he said (remarkably egotistically, when you think of it), “You will never gain my respect.” To which I replied, “I didn’t come to Washington to gain your respect.”

I turned and walked out, and as we left, my aide heard him say to his aide, “Get Oliver.”

A few months later, someone at the Federal Trade Commission did something that was not improper, but was probably injudicious. Mr. Dingell announced he was going to have a hearing, and demanded my presence.

I was lucky. I’d seen him operate and knew his tactics. Mr. Dingell would question the victim for a whole day — six hours or more at the microphone — then have his henchmen scrutinize the testimony searching for inconsistencies. When they found some, Mr. Dingell would attack.

I hired counsel (at my expense). We reviewed the files for a whole week and prepared my testimony.

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