Carl, Andy and Sander Levin in 2018
Carl, Andy and Sander Levin in 2018. (Courtesy of Michigan Radio/photographer Lester Graham)

Carl Levin personified integrity and the notion of putting the public good above self-interest.

Throughout my adult life, wherever I went in Michigan, from Copper Harbor to Monroe, I would run into people who would say, “I don’t always agree with Sen. Levin, but I support him anyway because he is so genuine, he tells it straight and he follows through.”

Carl Levin personified integrity and the notion of putting the public good above self-interest. As he walked about the Capitol in a rumpled suit, almost always with a plain white shirt and pedestrian tie, carrying bulging files with the occasional paper flying away, Carl was the very picture of sober purpose and rectitude.

In truth, he wasn’t unfun. In fact, he often pierced tense situations with self-deprecating humor, and he privately shared incisive observations about others with staff and colleagues.

But Carl was all about the work, and the great honor the people of Michigan had bestowed upon him with their votes and their trust. He did not seek to divine their views to be popular, but rather to study the issues and advance the people’s interest to the best of his ability.

Uncle Carl met with more presidents, kings, queens and other important people than all but a few of us ever will. But he treated them all the same as he did a Detroit autoworker or a beet farmer in Michigan’s Thumb — with a full measure of dignity but no airs, ever ready to puncture self-importance, posturing, mendacity and avarice.

He was so well-prepared for every meeting, hearing and conference that he challenged conventional boundaries between senator and staff. He was one of the most challenging senators to work for and one of the most rewarding. Challenging, because you had better know your business in detail, since he surely did. Rewarding, because he had authentic relationships with staff, treated them with deep respect and was loyal to them.

Kate Levin Markel passes the microphone to her father, Carl Levin, who was honored with the Leonard N. Simons History Award in 2015.
Kate Levin Markel passes the microphone to her father, Carl Levin, who was honored with the Leonard N. Simons History Award in 2015. Layne Gross
Family Ties

Uncle Carl was above all a family man. No matter the pressing business he faced as a senator, he always centered Aunt Barbara, my cousins Kate, Laura and Erica and their families, devoted time to them and so obviously cherished them. And the way he loved and treated his family radiated out and served as a model for how he treated colleagues, staff, constituents, soldiers and the world.

My dad and Uncle Carl never merged their identities no matter how often and humorously they were confused for each other, but they embarked on all manner of adventure. They drove cabs and worked at auto plants in Detroit, shared a room from kindergarten to law school and were the key adviser on every campaign from City Council to state Senate to Congress.

They competed fiercely in innumerable squash matches and one-on-one basketball games, each always insisting he alone was at fault for any collision or foul. They had each other’s back always, talked almost daily, deferred to each other in their areas of expertise and bragged on the other’s leadership. 

In my childhood, we had extended family dinners every Sunday rotating between our house, Carl and Barbara’s house, our late Aunt Hannah and Uncle Bill’s house, and my Grandma Bess’ apartment. Whatever house we happened to be at on a given Sunday, it was equally full of recipes and cooking, play and sport and silliness, and endless politics — planning, strategizing, debating the issues of the day.

Indeed, this paradigmatic brotherhood arose from and symbolized a larger sense that everything started with family.

From my earliest memory to this moment, perhaps above all, he has defined with my dad how close two brothers, two siblings, two people can be. In the end, these two Jewish boys from Detroit, these grandsons of immigrants each served 36 years in Congress, 32 of them together, becoming by far the longest co-serving siblings in the 232-year history of this place. As heartbroken as we are in this moment, I feel so grateful to have experienced this love and legacy.” 

Related Links: 

From Detroit to D.C., a Lifetime of Service: Carl Levin, the People’s Advocate Who Confronted the Powerful

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