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Point Man for Health Reform : Even critics concede that John Dingell may hold the key to Administration attempts to control the cost of medical care. The crusty Michigan Democrat will be measuring any plan against a tough standard--his father's dreams.


WASHINGTON — Early one morning in 1914, a police officer patrolling the train station in the one-stoplight town of Colorado Springs spotted a man, barely conscious, lying on a mattress on the floor of a baggage car.

"I'm sick," the stowaway pleaded. "I'm going to the Union Printer's Home. Can you take me there?"

The officer, a big cop named Kelleher, understood the seriousness of the man's plight. In 1914, tuberculosis was a death sentence for people from the squalid corners of the American cities where disease ran rampant. If this man was any different, it was only because he belonged to a labor union, and that gave him a place to die with some dignity and comfort.

Having no ambulance, Kelleher sent for a patrol wagon.

At that point in telling the story three-quarters of a century later, the tubercular man's son stopped for a moment, took off his glasses and wiped away tears that would no longer stay back.

Laid bare in that recollection of his father's illness was an intensely personal side of the fearsome Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

It is a side of the man that rarely shows. Say the name Dingell on Capitol Hill, and you will hear stories about the instinct for political maneuver, the iron will, the tactics of intimidation, the acts of retribution--all the traits with which he has expanded his committee chairmanship into a legislative empire. In anger, he has been known to slam his gavel so hard that it exploded.

But a different Dingell emerges as he begins to talk about his father. Awe finds its way into his voice as he begins: "Pop was not an ideologue; he was a philosopher. He did a lot of thinking on things where you could make this country better, fairer."

John Dingell Sr. survived that bout of tuberculosis, defying a doctor's prediction that he would live six months, and went on to serve 12 terms in Congress, where he was an architect of New Deal programs. When Dingell was a 16-year-old House page in 1943, his father introduced what was perhaps his most radical measure--the first national health insurance bill.

At the start of every two-year congressional session since 1955, when he won the seat left vacant by his father's death, John Jr., now 66, has introduced virtually the same legislation, putting it in the hopper again and again. It is H.R. 16, which is the number of the Detroit-area district that has been represented by father and son since 1932.

In the struggle that is about to begin over perhaps the knottiest problem on Washington's agenda--reform of America's health care-system--the dream of Dingell's father forms the crucible in which the chairman will test whatever program for health-care reform is brought forward by President Clinton.

Chairman of the many-tentacled House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell is arguably the second- or third-most important member of the House. His support is considered crucial to the success of Clinton's effort to stem the rising cost of medicine and make care more widely available and affordable.

Yet Dingell's preferred solutions to the health-care crisis are far more radical than any plan the Administration seems likely to adopt. That means Clinton will be faced with having to disabuse Dingell of ideas he has held for five decades or convince him that some less dramatic resolution is the best politicians can hope to sell to the public.

Dingell's enemies regard him as a demagogue and a bully, although few will say so on the record. Still, a House Democrat who is influential on the health issue concedes: "I don't like working with John Dingell. He's a difficult guy. But he's good at what he does, and you're not going to get a bill on the floor without his say-so."

Another indication of Dingell's power: Clinton's point man with Congress, legislative liaison Howard Paster, is a former United Auto Workers lobbyist with close ties to the chairman.

"The reason Howard Paster is (at the White House) is because of John Dingell. Most of his career is based on his relationship with John and Debbie Dingell (his wife and longtime General Motors lobbyist)," says one House Democratic aide.

"There's absolutely no danger, as long as Howard is there, that Dingell will be anything but fully consulted. I wouldn't be surprised if they were talking every day."

Dingell's father developed an understanding of the deficiencies of private health care from his own experiences and from what he saw while growing up as the son of Polish immigrants in Detroit.

"He learned all about things like whooping cough and diphtheria and pneumonia and meningitis and other diseases which killed young people, all of the diseases and conditions which killed mothers during their childbearing years and left a lot of orphans, of whom he was one," his son recalls.

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