America lost two unique political voices in the past week with the deaths of Rep. Walter Jones and former Rep. John Dingell.
Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, and Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, had very different politics. But in an age where experience is sometimes viewed as a political liability or source of institutional bias, both veteran lawmakers offer interesting lessons on leadership in a divided America.
In his 2017 book “The Death of Expertise,” Tom Nichols dove into the troubling trend of devaluing expertise.
“Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” Nichols wrote.
In their reflections about service, Dingell and Jones prove just how valuable experience and the opportunity for reflection that comes with it can be for our leaders.
The longestever serving member of Congress, Dingell was first elected in 1955 and was in Washington for all of America’s advances and setbacks over the past seven decades. A bullish Democrat, he had been advocating for nationalized health care longer than many politicians have been alive. He died Feb. 7 at age 92.
A former southern Democrat who switched parties before being elected in 1994 as part of the socalled Republican revolution, Jones was never hesitant to stand up for his conservative beliefs or to buck the Republican Party when he disagreed with his colleagues, like when he opposed the 2017 tax bill because he accurately predicted it would add to the national deficit. He died Feb. 10 on his 76th birthday.
Both Dingell and Jones, interestingly, had fathers who served in Congress before them. So there’s certainly room for debate about the role that privilege played in their political careers. But through their efforts and reflections over the years, each provides valuable insight about working in Congress and making Congress work.
“My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler,” Dingell wrote in his final OpEd, published in the Washington Post after his death. “We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.”
In his OpEd, Dingell also checked off a list of major reforms he witnessed and participated in over his tenure, including civil rights, health care, and environmental protections making a case for Congress as a place equipped to take on America’s major issues if people put country before party.
“Please note: 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,” Dingell wrote.
Though perhaps bestknown nationally for his embrace of the term “freedom fries” following the 9/11 attacks, Jones’ legacy will surely rest in part on his independent streak, including his vocal reversal on the Iraq War and more recent breaks with the Trump administration.
After supporting the war’s authorization in 2002, Jones came to deeply regret the human cost of the conflict and morphed into an outspoken critic of America’s military presence in the Middle East. He wrote over thousands of messages to families of servicembers who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, saying in an interview that “people died because of my mistake.”
It was a painful but refreshingly honest admission and reversal from a politician, and one that demonstrates a strength of political experience: the opportunity and ability to learn from past mistakes.
A deeply religious man, Jones described his apologies as a way to ask the families, and God, for forgiveness. He also leaned heavily on his faith in explaining his willingness to put conservative principles before party positions.
“The nation that has been blessed in so many ways has forgotten the blessings,” Jones said in a 2018 interview with the Nation. “That’s, I guess in a way, why I’m kind of an independent.”
At a time when we seem increasingly willing to devalue experienced leadership and celebrate political outsiders simply for being outsiders, these two oldschool and, of course, imperfect legislators leave perspectives legacies worth studying. And just as Dingell joked on Twitter a day before his death that “you’re not done with me just yet,” we shouldn’t done with the lessons they’ve left us.
“As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands,” Dingell wrote in his goodbye.
Are we up for the challenge?