Clift: John Dingell, in Turnaround

John Dingell is an imposing presence, tanned and robust-looking even as he sets his crutches aside and leans on the podium for support. It's a pinched nerve, he explains, something you don't ever want. Didn't Laura Bush just have surgery for that? A First Lady has that luxury, he replies, but a Polish lawyer in Congress doesn't have the time.

"Big John," as he's known in the Michigan district he's represented in Congress for 52 years, has agreed to brief a group of women from the International Women's Forum about global warming. He chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is charged with writing legislation to curb greenhouse gases. His wife, Debbie Dingell, is a member of the IWF, and she arranged the session, although she's not present, because she's an executive with General Motors. Her husband explains that there's a wall between what he does and what she does.

That wall has always seemed more symbolic than real; Dingell has long been the undisputed protector of the auto industry in Congress, blocking higher-mileage standards and decrying environmental standards as the work of extremists. His nickname in Washington was "Tailpipe John." He's a frequent target of groups like Greenpeace and says "got on me before they got on General Petraeus." After the Democrats regained control of the House and installed Nancy Pelosi, a strong environmentalist, as House speaker, Dingell underwent a conversion. He now accepts the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and is even talking about introducing a tax on carbon emissions to grapple with the problem. With the exception of Al Gore, who's not running for anything, and Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd, who's running but not getting anywhere, elected politicians are wary of any tax, especially one that hits working people the hardest. Dingell has been accused of reaching for the most radical solution because he knows it won't pass.

If you watch what he does and not what he says, there's reason to be skeptical about the sincerity of his conversion. Dingell made sure a provision passed by the Senate in June to increase the automobile fuel-efficiency standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 (up from 27.5) was not included in the energy bill passed by the House in August. The two bills are so radically different that Pelosi has ordered a "nonconference conference" to try to bridge the gap before proceeding to a formal conference between the House and Senate. Dingell does not conceal his irritation at the speaker's attempts to edge him aside on what he calls the toughest issue he's had to confront in his more than half a century as a legislator. He has a rapid-fire delivery as he reads from a prepared text, sprinkling the speech with what seem to be impromptu zingers. Pelosi wanted an energy bill by the Fourth of July. He told her he needed more time, so she went out and set up a special committee on energy independence and global warming, headed by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, in effect shadowing the work Dingell was doing. An irate Dingell told Pelosi, "You can't get a baby in four and a half months by getting two girls pregnant." Asked to assess the rival committee's work, Dingell says they're not writing legislation. "The chairman spent his summer watching glaciers melt," he adds with evident sarcasm, referring to a June visit by Pelosi and Markey to Greenland.

Dingell says he's working hard on a comprehensive bill that will have a bigger role for nuclear power and recognize American coal as an alternative to Saudi oil. He says he's telling his industry friends, "Fellas, we're going to write a bill you're going to hate but one you can live with—and if you work against me you'll wind up getting a bill you hate and one with which you cannot live." These last words are enunciated and delivered with the force that makes Dingell such an intimidating interrogator. He promises legislation that is hard on everyone. "There will be no escapees." Yet his sentiments are clearly with the auto industry, which has been the lifeblood of his district and his long political career. He talks of smart Americans living in a free society buying the cars they like—and pointing out that they like SUVs, not tiny cars that are more like tricycles. Changing human behavior is harder than changing policy. Asked when legislation might pass, he's noncommittal, saying, "I can't tell you when, if or how this will end."

Dingell is now 81, and he likes to say he's been working on energy issues "since I was a puppy." He managed the landmark Clean Air legislation in 1990 that was signed by the first President Bush, winning plaudits for bringing the bill to passage after only 13 hours of floor debate. What Pelosi and his other critics don't understand, he says, is that "it took 13 years to get it ready." And for much of that time Dingell worked against the legislation he ultimately brought to fruition, a pattern he may be on the verge of repeating.