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It's Just Hip When a Congressman Is Asked to Strip

Security: When his artificial joint sets off an airport metal detector, Rep. Dingell is ordered to drop his pants.

January 11, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — He is an unlikely topic of hot gossip, a 75-year-old congressman who looks like a drill sergeant and argues fiercely for issues like telephone deregulation.

But John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, whose intimidating tactics have earned him the nickname Big John, has become an item of curiosity with a small gesture that has made him the talk of Washington and beyond.

He stripped.

When his hip replacement pin set off a metal detector at Reagan National Airport last weekend, screeners asked him to drop his pants. The ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, who travels to his home district in Detroit frequently, went into a private room and showed his boxers.

Ever since, Dingell has been doling out sound bites ("They felt me up and down like a prize steer," he told the Detroit News, which broke the story Monday), while his staff fields a surprising number of phone calls and e-mails from around the country. One response came from the doctor who implanted the hip after Dingell was in a hunting accident 20 years ago. He offered to send a note of verification.

"Who would have thought I would be answering so many questions about the congressman's underwear?" marveled Michael Hacker, Dingell's press secretary.

But aside from the water cooler jokes ("Now he knows how the taxpayers feel at tax time!" a Warren, Mich., man wrote in a chat-room message at the Detroit News' Web site), the Dingell incident has set off more than the metal detector. Something of a national debate about airport security seems to have developed.

To some, the incident is reassuring. Throughout the encounter, Dingell never disclosed that he was a congressman, although he did refuse to place his wallet on the conveyor belt. He insisted that his wife Debbie--president of General Motors' charity, the GM Foundation--had jewelry stolen from her purse in an earlier airport encounter.

"I think it was great that he had to endure what the common man would have had to endure," Will Sanders of Santa Monica wrote at the Detroit News' Web site. He said security employees "did their job."

Northwest Airlines agreed, saying its employee handled the incident in "a dignified and professional manner."

Others see the incident as security run amok, a sure sign that the terrorists are winning by frightening the United States into giving up its freedoms.

"This is getting to be a bit ridiculous," wrote a Wales, Mass., reader. "No one has to endure a strip search to board a train or a bus. . . . Enough already!"

But to those who know Dingell well--including the fellow politicians and special-interest lobbyists who have cowered under his glare for years--the most remarkable thing about the incident was Dingell's compliance.

"I don't want any special treatment," he reportedly told Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who called to apologize. "I don't want to be treated any better than anyone else, but I don't want to be treated any worse either."

Dingell's deference may have something to do with the fact that this is an election year. For the first time since he arrived in Washington in 1955, Dingell is facing a competitive, redistricted race against another incumbent Democrat.

In any event, by week's end, Dingell appeared to have tired of the topic and was eager to return to more comfortable subjects, like the patients' bill of rights (he's for it) and gun control (he's against it).

Explained one aide: "Congressman Dingell just doesn't feel like talking about his underwear anymore."

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