ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, a Washington figure who's been around longer than some of the monuments in this city and who is, himself, a living monument on Capitol Hill. Democratic Rep. John Dingell Jr., of Michigan, who is 86 years old, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1955, and he has been there even since.
Tomorrow, he will surpass the late Senator Robert Byrd's record for congressional longevity when he achieves the tenure of 57 years, five months and 26 days in Congress. And on the eve of that milestone, we welcome Congressman Dingell to the program.
REP. JOHN DINGELL: Thank you. Thank you.
SIEGEL: Can you tell us, in your first 57 years, five months and 25 days, what has been the most gratifying moment you've had as a congressman?
DINGELL: Well, I've had a lot of wonderful opportunities. Obviously getting elected the first time was tremendously valuable. But I think the single vote that was most important - and it was one that almost cost me my job - was the vote and the fight that I participated in to get the Civil Right Act of 1964 enacted into law, where we finally, as a nation, recognized that we had to allow all of our citizens to vote.
One of the things that I had to do was to campaign around the district about - on something that was really quite unpopular for the average citizen. And I'd ask why is it that a white citizen in good standing can vote, and a black citizen - in equal good standing - cannot vote. And people agreed with me and they reelected me, and I've been here ever since.
SIEGEL: So that was the most gratifying moment. What's the biggest piece of unfinished business for you?
DINGELL: I think jobs, opportunity and the economy. And after that comes, I think, an overriding problem. And that is making the legislative bodies everywhere at all levels, and the ordinary citizen and elected officials understand that the country is more important than any single issue. And that the country requires that we should work together to compromise and to successfully conclude the business of the nation and the Congress here.
SIEGEL: Is this about the least effective, least satisfying one you've ever served in?
DINGELL: It just seems to be getting worse. I have to say I agree with you, it is. Compromise and good government have, off-time, become dirty words outside. And I have to defend and point out compromise and conciliation and cooperation were not dirty words to the Founding Fathers, but they were what we expected we would do.
SIEGEL: What's the most important piece of advice you would give a freshman member of the House of Representatives on how to make a career?
DINGELL: Well, first of all get the facts. Second of all, know what you're going to say and know what you stand for before you open your mouth. And then the next thing I'd say is learn how you legislate and learn how you legislate well. Know your colleagues and know what they stand for, and understand how you can compromise and cooperate to make things happen.
SIEGEL: Congressman Dingell, we should just add a footnote here. People who are not from Michigan may not know that you succeeded your father, John Dingell, Sr., who served from 1933 to 1955. So for 80 years, there has been a Congressman John Dingell from Michigan.
Do Michigan voters actually know that you actually have to run for re-election every two years and...
DINGELL: Oh, sure.
SIEGEL: Yeah, they know that.
DINGELL: You bet you. And I have challenges, and I've had serious fights. The Wall Street Journal gave me a one-in-15 chance of winning an election. I've had...
SIEGEL: Yeah, but how long ago was that?
DINGELL: Oh, that was '64.
SIEGEL: Yeah, that's 40 years ago.
DINGELL: Well, but don't forget I had a big fight in '96.
SIEGEL: That's true.
DINGELL: The mayor of one of my principal cities ran against me. I was redistricted 10 years ago into another district rather into a district with a sitting member of Congress - a good friend of mine. I had to win a very difficult election, which I was outspent about 5-to-3.
This job is not for the weak or the indifferent or the lazy, or the sick or the lame or the silly. It's a job for very serious people who work hard and who understand and are willing to do the things that you've got to, to win a hard fight. And what most people don't realize is that if you have a hard fight every now and then, you will grow in strength and in the number of your friends, and you will come of the situation quite well.
So I never complained about having a fight. I think it's a good thing. I think the people are served by having it. And I think that I'm served by having an opportunity to get my story out and talk to my people.
SIEGEL: Well, Congressman John Dingell, it's - congratulations again on breaking the record for length of service in Congress. And we look forward to talking to you for many, many more years to come.
DINGELL: Well, God bless you, and thank you. But remember one thing, as my dad used to tell me: It is not how long you've served, but it is how well you have served. There are people that have served here one or two years who've done great things. There are people who have served for much longer who have not.
I want to be one of those who is remembered for what it is he did, and that he was a good public servant.
SIEGEL: That's Democratic Congressman John Dingell of Michigan who, tomorrow, becomes the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.