Congressman John Dingell Makes Washington Quake, but Not His Executive Wife, Debbie

UPDATED 06/23/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/23/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

The wild boar heads on Rep. John Dingell's office walls attest to the Congressman's skill as a hunter, as does his reputation on Capitol Hill. The Michigan Democrat, who has been called Mr. Mean by columnist Jack Anderson, is known for stalking and intimidating witnesses who come before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is the chairman. Naturally then, when Dingell met and was smitten with Deborah Ann Insley on a plane from Detroit to Washington in 1977, he pursued her relentlessly. "He asked me out 15 times before I'd go," recalls Debbie, 34, who was a General Motors lobbyist at the time and concerned about the propriety of dating a Congressman from Detroit. After a 10-month courtship, Dingell, 59, proposed marriage. "I told her every damn thing that was bad about me," says Dingell. "I wanted her to know what she was getting into."

Even so, Insley, an heiress to the Fisher Body fortune and now a $50,000-a-year Washington-based administrator for General Motors, became Mrs. Dingell five years ago. She quickly established her own tactics for dealing with her feisty spouse. "If he gets real domineering," says Debbie, "I just remind him that I'm not a witness before his subcommittee. And when he wants to treat me like his wife, we'll continue the discussion."

Dingell has actually mellowed under his wife's influence. "Everyone will tell you I've become civilized," he admits. "My disposition is better. My temper isn't as fierce." That news is slight comfort to Michael K. Deaver, former deputy White House Chief of Staff and now a Washington lobbyist. Dingell's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee is conducting closed hearings on charges that Deaver exploited his friendship with President Reagan on behalf of his lobbying clients. Dingell initiated the investigation and is a strong supporter of the proposed Integrity in Post-Employment Act, which would bar key federal officeholders from lobbying for foreign governments or corporations. (As a former lobbyist, Debbie has "mixed feelings" about the bill.) If the subcommittee findings indicate that Deaver has broken the law, his case will be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.

The probe is a regular topic at the Dingells' town house in McLean, Va., where the 6'3", 200-pound Congressman holds forth on the matter while massaging his wife's feet. A onetime Republican who switched parties after her marriage, Debbie nevertheless disagrees with her husband on occasion. When Dingell's committee began investigating former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford for mismanagement in April 1983, Debbie fired off a letter to the Washington Post in Burford's defense. "A lot of congressional wives feel lost in their husbands' shadows and have trouble finding their identity. I've never felt that way. I'm proud to be Mrs. John Dingell, but I very much have my own accomplishments," says Debbie, who is well known around the capital for raising funds for the Democratic Party and assorted charitable causes.

A do-good spirit, she says, was part of her upbringing in Detroit. Debbie's maternal grandfather and his brothers teamed up in 1908 to manufacture the first closed auto body. General Motors became their biggest customer, buying them out in 1926 with GM stock worth $208 million at the time. Debbie's mother is an executive with the Fisher Foundation, which dispenses funds for Catholic and educational organizations. Her father, a manufacturer of commercial windows and sashes, encouraged his teenage daughter to teach inner-city youths reading and math.

Debbie, a 1975 graduate of Georgetown University, joined GM the next year as a legislative analyst. In 1977 she became a lobbyist, buttonholing congressmen on issues like fuel efficiency standards. "I never did lobby John," she notes, "because he intimidated me a little." When she and Dingell became engaged in 1981, Debbie decided to give up her job as a lobbyist. Since then, she has administered the company's government relations staff.

Like his wife's family, Dingell's has served the interests of the auto industry for years. His father, John Sr., was elected to the first of 11 congressional terms in 1932. John Jr. graduated with a law degree from Georgetown, then became an assistant prosecutor for Wayne County. When his father died in 1955, John won the senior Dingell's seat in a special election and has held it ever since. In 1981 he became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee; the six subcommittees in Dingell's domain have jurisdiction over 40 percent of all legislation introduced in the House. "I try to be humane on the issues, but there are times I have to be ruthless," says Dingell. "I am not here to be a well-liked patsy." This no-nonsense approach has earned both the ire and respect of his colleagues. "Sometimes I think John's an arbitrary and capricious son of a bitch, and other times I think he's a great parliamentarian," Illinois Republican Edward Madigan once observed. "At all times, I'd rather have him on my side than against me."

Before he met Debbie, Dingell's private life was, in his words, "frankly awful." His first wife, Helen Henebry, a former airline stewardess he married in 1952, had emotional problems and was periodically institutionalized. John was often left to cope with their four children, now 16 to 31. In 1972, he sued for divorce and emerged after a bitter three-year battle broke and depressed. By the time he met Debbie, Dingell was on the Washington dating circuit but terrified of commitment. "I was like a dog who had backed into a hot stove," he says.

Dingell's fears subsided once he got to know Debbie, even though she is every bit as strong-willed as her husband. The May-December aspect of their relationship never bothered Debbie, who often dated older men. "Everyone always said I acted like I was 30 going on 60," she confesses. Both she and John work 14-hour days, a life-style they say leaves no time for more children. Though Debbie was diagnosed last year as having a mild case of Guillain-Barré syndrome (a nerve disorder that left her stiff and lethargic in the mornings), she has since recovered.

The Dingells' friends still marvel at the match and the changes it has wrought in one of Washington's most fearsome figures. "He's the lion that roars in the House," says California Rep. Tony Coelho. "But whenever Debbie is around, he starts purring."

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