Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin speaks at the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2015.
Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin speaks at the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2015. (Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post via Getty Images via JTA)

Sen. Carl Levin led a life dedicated to public service.

Carl Levin, the Jewish Detroiter who spent 36 years as a fierce advocate for Michigan and the American people in the U.S. Senate, has died at age 87.

Carl Levin
Carl Levin

The Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School announced his passing on July 29. Sen. Levin was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago. The center, named for Levin, focuses on the passion of his career: government oversight.

Sen. Levin, first elected to the Senate in 1978, became his state’s longest-serving senator. From 2001 until his retirement in 2015, Sen. Levin served as the chairman or the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He always appeared a little disheveled and spoke softly, and his staffers described him as a rarity — a kind and accommodating boss in the world’s most intense pressure chamber.

“Carl Levin was a giant of a senator and a giant of a human being with a big heart and a kind soul,” former California Sen. Barbara Boxer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “He made his mark and will go down in history as one of the best.”

Sen. Levin could be fierce in eliciting testimony in the Senate as chairman of the subcommittee on investigations. Hauling Goldman Sachs executives before his committee in 2010, amidst the carnage of the 2008 financial collapse. Under his intense questioning, his subjects squirmed on camera.

Sen. Levin’s liberal economic outlook was shaped as he watched the diminishment of his once muscular and beloved city, Detroit. He fought hard for car manufacturers in Congress, knowing the lifeblood that they were for his state’s working class. He worked as a taxi driver while in college — he said he knew Detroit’s every block. He also on an assembly line at Chrysler.

Sen. Levin was a dove who spoke out early against the George W. Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq. But as chairman of the committee that shaped military policy, he was also a defender of protections for the armed forces, sometimes to what fellow Democrats was a fault. He successfully prevented bids to take investigations of sexual misconduct out of the hands of the line of command.

Family Roots

Sen. Levin grew up in a middle-class household in Detroit and that his parents, Saul and Bess Levin, were Zionists. Bess was active in Hadassah. Future U.S. Rep. Sander “Sandy” Levin was his older brother.

“Sandy and I and our sister Hannah used to call ourselves Hadassah Orphans because when we got home in the afternoon, my mother was never there,” Sen. Levin said in an oral history for the Detroit Jewish Federation. “She was volunteering for Hadassah.”

Sander Levin
Sander Levin

Sen. Levin was a go-to senator for lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was attentive to their requests for defense assistance to Israel. However, he parted ways with AIPAC when the lobby, heeding the Israeli government, opposed the emerging Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Even after his retirement in 2015, as the deal neared completion, Sen. Levin remained influential, urging his former colleagues to back the deal.

He was devoted to Michigan, traveling to its farthest corners to meet constituents. A staffer recalled to the JTA that he convened the staff after a woman in an airport complained to him that she had not heard back from his office after writing. The talk, the staffer said, was “serious,” but not a rebuke and not unkind.

Judge Avern Cohn
Judge Avern Cohn

Sen. Levin’s brother Sander Levin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, and from 2010-2012 — when Sander was the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and Carl chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee — they were the most powerful brothers in Washington.

They were throughout their lives the closest of friends. Sander, who retired in 2019, was replaced by his son and Carl’s nephew, Andy Levin.

Their cousin, Avern Cohn, the retired U.S. District Court judge for Eastern Michigan, spoke with former JN Editor Robert Sklar when then senator announced his retirement plans in 2013.

“Carl Levin’s role in the public life of Michigan and of the nation has set a standard that few have ever in the past, or indeed in the future, will come close to,” Cohn said.

“The Jewish people should be particularly proud of having contributed Carl to the public weal — the public wellbeing.”

By Ron Kampeas

Look for an extensive tribute to the life of Sen. Carl Levin in the Aug. 12 Jewish News.

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