Nation & World

An unlikely Washington love story: Debbie Dingell on her 38-year marriage to John Dingell

Debbie and John Dingell took an engragement photo on Capitol Hill. CREDIT: Photo courtesy of family
Debbie and John Dingell took an engragement photo on Capitol Hill. CREDIT: Photo courtesy of family
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He called her “The Lovely Deborah” or, when he was annoyed or impatient, “Woman.” She called him “Honey” or just “John Dingell.”

Debbie and John Dingell lived a Washington love story for 38 years. It was a marriage, a partnership, a public romance that made them one of the most powerful couples in the nation’s capital: he as the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, she as an auto executive and, more recently, his successor as the representative for Michigan’s 12th Congressional District.

They were unabashed in their affection for each other, a rare and sentimental display. Friends teased that they made every other couple in the nation’s capital look uninspired and humdrum.

“We were two people who, when we came together, we were whole,” Debbie told me in a phone call Tuesday. “We were a team, in every sense of the word.”

John died last week at age 92, and every tribute mentioned his historic public service, his fearsome demeanor - and his adoration for his wife. He called her “The best thing that’s ever happened to me.” She called him, “My one and only true love.” In the National Journal this week, Charlie Cook called it “the most committed marriage I ever saw. He worshiped the ground she walked on, and she was the same toward him.”

In his final op-ed, “My Last Words for America,” John wrote: “It’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement. 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.”

It was, from the very start, an unlikely match. He was a Democrat; she a Republican. He was a politician; she a member of the wealthy Fisher Body family. He was divorced with four kids, she a devout Catholic who dined every Friday with Jesuit priests.

And John was twice her age.

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They met on a bumpy flight from Detroit to Washington, D.C. It sounds like an old-fashioned Harlequin novel: He was this big, gruff guy soothing the frightened young woman next to him. He was smitten and asked her out 15 times over the next two years before she finally agreed to a date. “He was persistent but not in a #MeToo way,” she said.

It took her six months for realize she was in love. They were married in May 1981. He was 54, she was 27. “The only reason we were together is because God wanted us to be,” she said.

Debbie wanted to have children. “I tried very hard. It just wasn’t meant to be,” she said. Instead she threw herself into her career, working as an executive at General Motors and then president of the company’s foundation.

Critics said her husband - who was head of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and a fierce defender of the Detroit’s car industry - was literally in bed with the auto industry, much to the dismay of environmentalists and auto safety advocates. John, never one to mince words, considered it one of the stupidest criticisms leveled at him.

“I was fighting for autoworkers long before I met Deborah,” he told The Washington Post in 2010. “The fact is that I am not married to the auto industry, but I am elected to represent the people of Michigan and in our part of the country. My people live and die by the success of the auto industry and manufacturing.”

The couple shared a passion for politics (Debbie became a Democrat when she became a Dingell) but disagreed on a few issues, especially gun control: “I was never afraid to tell him when I thought he was wrong.”

Twenty five years ago, at her urging, he voted for a ban on assault rifles and resigned from the NRA. (He was, however, very happy when she became a member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus and learned skeet shooting.)

Everyone knew she was John’s sounding board and chief adviser. “She has the best political head I’ve ever seen,” he said in 2005. “She’s a tremendous asset, and I’m smart enough to know it.”

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Debbie befriended other congressional spouses and Washington power brokers, organized bipartisan retreats and became a go-to source for marriage advice, especially when there was a significant age difference between the two partners.

“Life is a compromise.” she told them. “We both agreed when we got married never to go to bed angry. Honestly, when you marry a man that much older than you, you can’t expect people to change. If you really love them, you have to learn how to give.” (Older, perhaps, but not that old-fashioned: John, she said, cooked and did laundry.)

In 2014, after 59 years in office, John announced he would not seek another term. When Debbie decided to run for his seat, he did not campaign for her.

“He felt very strongly that I needed to be a strong Debbie Dingell, not a second-rate John Dingell,” she said. “It was really hard for him. I didn’t want people to think I had been handpicked, and I had to earn their respect.”

She won that fall, the only woman to assume her husband’s congressional seat while he was still alive. Debbie was reelected for a third term in November.

John used his retirement to write his memoir, “The Dean: The Best Seat in the House,” published in December. His mind remained sharp - he had a fierce Twitter game - but his health deteriorated. Some believe Debbie kept him alive out of sheer force of will; when she was out of earshot, he pulled aside her many girlfriends (and yes, I am one) and made them promise to watch over her when he was gone.

Last week, when Debbie missed the State of the Union speech, she received more than 100 texts asking about John. She posted a message on Facebook saying he had taken a turn for the worse; he died the next day. He will be remembered Thursday at a memorial service in Washington, D.C., and buried Friday at Arlington Cemetery.

“My heart is broken,” she wrote hours later. “My true love is gone. The tears are flowing pretty freely as I miss the man that made me whole. One can know it is coming, but nothing prepares you for the hole in your heart.”

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On Facebook, a florist posted a story about Valentine’s Day 1994, when a large man showed up as he was closing shop. Apologizing profusely, the man explained his plane was late and he just HAD to get flowers for his wife - but the shop had been picked clean and there wasn’t much left.

“The look on his face told me that he’d be more upset than his wife if he couldn’t bring home something nice for Valentine’s Day; that she’d understand, but he would have none of that. It touched me in a way I’ve never forgotten, about the things you do for the one you love.”

Together, the two men spent 20 minutes putting together a huge bouquet until they were both satisfied. “When he paid, I looked at the name on the credit card: John Dingell.”

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