Why John Dingell was the best at Twitter

Why John Dingell was the best at Twitter

How ‘The Dean’ used Twitter to become the moral conscience of the Democratic Party.

John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress, ever, will be laid to rest today in Dearborn. The former “Dean” of Congress has been hailed by media, colleagues and constituents since his passing on Thursday — both for his legendary political record and prowess on social media. The congressman had earned 250,000 Twitter followers at the time of his death last week — no shabby feat for a 92-year-old born before the Great Depression even began. But what’s most remarkable about John Dingell was not that he was funny on Twitter, but that he was on Twitter at all. Which got me thinking more about the guy John Dingell used to be, and how he changed.

Many of his Twitter followers might not have actually dug vintage John Dingell (especially those NRA connections). Not to say that his record on civil rights, universal health care, etc. shouldn’t be noted and celebrated. Just that, like everything, John Dingell was complicated. One of the few journalists to evenly chronicle his political legacy this week was Detroiter and Jalopnik managing editor Erin Marquis. Despite Dingell’s eventual reputation as an environmental steward, Marquis reports, he sided with the auto industry over air emissions time and time again in the 1970s and ‘80s — earning that unfortunate nickname,“Tailpipe Johnny.”

Noted the Audobon Society, “His allegiance to the auto industry was one reason he lost his chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008 to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who took a harder line on fighting climate change.” Yet Dingell also played a major part in passing the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and tons of other crucial environmental protections. Even when Dingell’s ties to the auto companies led environmentalists to question his credibility, “Dingell did not turn bitter like (Joe) Lieberman or let past resentments guide his votes,” Grist reported. Instead, he ended up reversing himself — and, presumably the Big Three — and voting for cap-and-trade in 2009. He retired with a 75% grade from the League of Conservation Voters — a big change for Tailpipe Johnny.

We now call out politicians when we realize that their stances on provocative issues have changed — take the backlash over Kamala Harris’ prosecutorial record or Hillary Clinton’s support of same-sex marriage. But it occurs to me that this example of flexibility in regards to identity — an ability to meaningfully evolve our positions and beliefs as stances and evidence change– is part of what made John Dingell so special.

How many of us are open-minded enough to publicly leap into the unknown… with as much potential for humiliation as 80-something-year-old politician’s first Tweets?

When you read his words, scrolling past the Trump trolling and Harbaugh fan posts, it’s amazing how naturally social media came to John Dingell. He didn’t try to please everybody. He never tweeted factual mistakes, or salacious posts designed to make headlines. He generously retweeted the wins and messages of others. He addressed and answered his followers responsibly.

Thinking about John Dingell and Twitter made me reflect on my own experiences with social media. I’m grateful to Twitter for exposing me to more great journalism. It’s also revealed aspects of racism and privilege I flat-out did not understand before encountering new perspectives.  But sometimes I find myself avoiding Twitter — because the constant stream of aggravations and call outs and takedowns makes me uncomfortable. Probably also because I’ll never be as funny as John Dingell. But who is?

What I think drew John Dingell to Twitter, something I admire and envy, was an obsession with furthering and evolving the conversation — about policy, about American stewardship, or, one of my favorites, abolishing the Senate. It explains why he showed up to serve his constituents for 59 years when Florida’s golf courses beckoned. How he introduced his father’s universal health care bill at the beginning of every Congress, but was pragmatic enough to work on passing the politically viable fragments. It explains how he retired from the House in 2015 yet made Twitter his stage as the elder statesman of the party, literally till his dying day. It was an obsession without elitist trappings, because he couldn’t stop talking to, and learning from, all of us.

I resent that the Washington Post hides John Dingell’s final words, dictated to his wife as he died, behind their paywall. Such words should be read by as many Americans as possible.  

“In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them,” wrote Dingell. “I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them.”

5,978 Tweets still prove that point.

Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit