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Lincoln Medal Presentation to Rep. John Dingell

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC, Sunday, June 22, 2014

Good evening, and thanks to Ford’s Theatre for this presentation and this opportunity for me to help celebrate President Lincoln, his legacy, what he continues to mean for our country.

Tonight, we honor two individuals with this very special Lincoln Medal: James Earl Jones and Congressman John D. Dingell, Jr.  And I want to congratulate each for this recognition, this special recognition.

I’m particularly privileged to introduce my dear friend, John Dingell.  John, as I know everyone here knows, has been in Congress since 1955.  Now, that’s a significant record for many reasons.  He’s the longest serving member of Congress in the history of our country.  But just because he’s been there a long time doesn’t make him a great congressman.  It also – as you all know, he has been a very good friend of Ford’s Theatre.  And he’s one of the last World War II veterans who serve in Congress.  And after he retires, he’ll have served 60 years in Congress of the United States.  No other like him.

John Dingell has accomplished a great deal over those years.  He’s been a stalwart champion of the environment, as architect of the 1972 Clean Water Act, as an author of the Endangered Species Act.  Over 55 years he championed civil rights, Medicare, and American workers’ rights and rights of all the people of our country.  He pushed for health care incentives that benefit women and children.  He co-sponsored the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and he helped root out waste, fraud, and abuse in government, even in the Pentagon.

John has long witnessed, and embodied, the spirit that gives our nation its strength.  He started this magnificent life of his and career, this special journey of John Dingell, as a young Congressional page watching FDR’s speeches on the House floor; a soldier during the last part of World War II; and his continuous support, strong support, of our men and women in uniform during all those years.

On a personal note – because I do think it is always about people – John Dingell believes that as much as anyone.  In 1971, I was a young staffer for a Republican congressman from Omaha, Nebraska.  He was a conservative Republican.  John Dingell was John Dingell.  It’s hard to – it’s hard to categorize John Dingell, as you all know.

Now, I remember one day my old boss, Congressman McCollister coming back from an Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee meeting.  He served on the committee with John Dingell.  He served on the same subcommittee that John chaired.  And he said to me, “You know, this Dingell, he is a smart, tough son of a bitch.”  And then he said, “I like the guy.  I like him very much.  I like him because he respects others.  He fights like hell, he’s smart, he knows what he’s doing, he knows where he wants to go, but he always has time for all of us, he respects us, and I admire that.”

And I think in this town, but everywhere in our great country, when you can leave a long career, as John will, at the end of this Congress – 60 years long – with the same dignity that you came with, that’s a big deal.  The same focus on respecting others and helping others and doing what’s right, and never flinching from doing what’s right, and not always the political thing, he’s done that.  He has done this job with as much integrity as I’ve ever seen.

In the late 1980s, I had the privilege of being president of the USO.  And we reinstituted the Bob Hope USO Christmas Gala.  I went to John Dingell and his wife, Debbie, and asked if Debbie Dingell would co-chair this first big event.  The USO was in trouble.  And I asked John for his support. 

What the Dingells did for the USO at that first event and subsequent events really helped set the USO back on course.  And if you remember, in the late ‘80s, this country was not at war, and when America is not at war, it’s harder to sustain the institutions like the USO.  But the Dingells made it happen.  And I should also note Barbara Morris Lemon, who was the other co-chairman of that with Debbie Dingell, but that’s another dimension of John Dingell. 

I worked with John Dingell when I had the privilege of serving in the Senate for 12 years.  And there was no one that I counted on more for direct, clear, smart advice – advice I may not have always wanted, but he gave it to me.  I always appreciated his style.  I appreciated how he handled people, the dignity that he brought to the job, and I might add, how he accomplished what he accomplished. 

You know, there are a great many who serve in this town in many capacities across our country and the world who record great records of accomplishment.  But more important than the great records of accomplishment – to me, and I think most people – is how you did it.  And he did it right, the right way.

Most of you here have been to Teddy Roosevelt Island, and you might recall that one of those great stone slabs that appear next to Teddy Roosevelt is a slab that says the two indispensable requisites in life are courage and character.  And ladies and gentlemen, that personifies John Dingell as well as any two words that I know.

So tonight, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the board of trustees at Ford’s Theatre, for his historically long and productive service to the people of our nation and for his unwavering support of Ford’s Theatre, I am proud on behalf of Ford’s Theatre to award the Lincoln Medal to Congressman John David Dingell, Jr.

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