Susan J. Demas: After Trump attack, the GOP Legislature must name a highway for John Dingell

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) claps during a press conference after a vote on healthcare on Capitol Hill November 7, 2009 in Washington, DC. | Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

It takes a lot to shock anyone about Donald Trump these days, but the president managed to accomplish that at his Battle Creek rally when he seemed to suggest legendary Congressman John Dingell was in hell.

Trump consoled himself during the U.S. House of Representatives’ historic vote to impeach him Wednesday night by lashing out at his enemies in front of a crowd of roughly 5,000.

But even some diehard Trumpers seated in back of him flinched when the Republican launched into his diatribe against Dingell.

“Maybe he’s looking up,” Trump declared, implying the late congressman was in hell.

You really couldn’t pick a worse target in Michigan than Dingell, a World War II-era veteran, the longest-serving member of Congress and someone who garnered genuine bipartisan respect after decades of service. The former Dean of Congress retired in 2015 and died in February at age 92.

So why was Trump trashing him 10 months later in Michigan? The president has apparently been enraged for days that Dingell’s widow and successor, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), was leaning toward voting to impeach him. (Indeed, she did and penned a long op-ed in the New York Times on her solemn decision).

Trump appears to declare John Dingell is in hell during rant at Battle Creek rally

Over the weekend, Trump took to Twitter to trash the congresswoman, ranting that she wasn’t sufficiently grateful for his help with her husband’s funeral arrangements. That was after Dingell appeared on cable news and was asked about impeachment — and she didn’t even commit at that time to voting for it.

But the president was incensed.

“The last time I spoke to Debbie Dingell was her call thanking me for granting top memorial and funeral service honors for her then just departed husband, long time Congressman John Dingell. Now I watch her ripping me as part of the Democrats Impeachment Hoax. Really pathetic!” Trump tweeted Saturday night.

Of course, Trump really didn’t have anything to do with the honors John Dingell received, like being interred at Arlington Cemetery. He didn’t lie in state, as that would have gone against his wishes, and that would have been a congressional decision, not a presidential one.

Debbie Dingell has been candid about her grief. In interviews following Trump’s attack, she said she’s been having a “hard time” after her husband’s death and Trump’s tweets “really hurt.” She also said that Trump’s tweet made her feel “kicked in the stomach.”

Debbie Dingell says she’s having a ‘hard time’ after her husband’s death and Trump’s tweets ‘really hurt’

At the rally Wednesday, Trump decided to again slam Dingell over her husband’s death, declaring that he gave her the “A-plus treatment.” Not satisfied with merely assailing a widow, Trump then suggested that John Dingell was currently in hell.

Debbie Dingell again responded with grace, writing on Twitter, “Mr. President, let’s set politics aside. My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”

Leaders across the political spectrum leapt to her defense, including Cindy McCain, whose late husband, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was a frequent Trump target; U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.); and Attorney General Dana Nessel.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield at the President Donald Trump rally in Battle Creek, Dec. 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) was one of Trump’s rally guests who has not, as of this column’s publication, condemned Trump’s attacks on the Dingells.

But talk is cheap anyway. The way that he and state Senate Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) can show that their occasional paeans to bipartisanship are real is by making the Legislature’s first action upon returning in 2020 passing Senate Bill 387. (Yes, they should first pass a deal boosting funding for roads and schools, but that’s the kind of leadership Republicans seem wholly incapable of exercising).

The bill calls for part of U.S.-24 to be designated the “John D. Dingell, Jr. Memorial Highway.” The legislation sadly has no GOP co-sponsors.

After Plawecki controversy, GOP bill limits state highway honorary names

Earlier this year, Republicans engaged in ugly partisan posturing over highway naming bills — which are supposed to be the easiest, least partisan thing lawmakers do in Lansing (besides attending lobbyist happy hours).

A bill naming a highway for late state Rep. Julie Plawecki (D-Dearborn) earned several GOP defections, as did the “Freeway of Love” legislation to honor Motown legend and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin.

Some Republicans argued that highways should only be named for fallen military members, law enforcement officers, first responders and Congressional Medal of Honor awardees — and state House Transportation Chair Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) even went so far as to introduce legislation.

Of course, this standard didn’t apply to a late GOP lawmaker, state Rep. Pete Pettalia of Presque Isle, for whom Republicans gladly voted last session to name a road.

Dingell’s D.C. compatriots bid farewell to ‘Mr. Michigan’

Now it’s true that John Dingell didn’t die in combat and he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Republicans shouldn’t let that stand in the way of honoring the man known as “Mr. Michigan.”

If they did, that would make them as mean and petty as the president. And is that the legacy Michigan Republicans really want?

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.