I never met John Dingell, the long-long-serving congressman from Michigan who died last month. My main recollection of him is the fear he struck in lawyers of my acquaintance with the investigations he conducted as Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (he also chaired the full Committee).
Some Washington law firms had what they called “a Dingell practice” devoted to helping clients cope with the bullying (as they saw it) to which Dingell and his ambitious staffers (some of whom presumably aspired to work one day in a Dingell practice) subjected them.
Recently, I heard a Dingell anecdote that may provide a window into the man. My source, whom I trust completely, is a former lawyer who needed Dingell’s sign-off on some sort of fix for one of his firm’s clients.
The lawyer didn’t know Dingell, but had a good relationship with Rep. Henry Gonzalez. Readers of a certain age may remember Gonzalez. He was Texas Democrat who served in Congress from 1961 until 1999. His politics were left-wing with a strong populist current. Although he helped found the Hispanic Caucus, he wasn’t much into identity politics, and eventually quit the caucus.
Gonzalez was a formidable guy. In 1989, he became chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee. Though he could be gruff, Gonzalez became known for his “open and gentlemanly” conduct of committee hearings.
It was to this powerhouse that my source turned for help in persuading Dingell to sign-off on his proposal. But Gonzalez wouldn’t do it. He didn’t want to have anything to do with Dingell.
My source thus turned to another powerful House Democrat of the 1990s, who shall remain nameless. That congressman went to Dingell, who complied with the request.
My source asked that congressman why Gonzalez wouldn’t go to Dingell. The congressman explained that Gonzalez won’t speak to Dingell because Dingell demeans him. For example, the congressman revealed, Dingell calls Gonzalez — a fellow committee chairman — “Speedy Gonzales.”
As a young member of the Texas State Senate — the first Mexican-American elected to that body — Gonzalez was sometimes referred to by colleagues as “that Mexican.” But I’m not sure that even the good old boys in the Texas legislature, circa the late 1950s, ever called him “Speedy Gonzales.”