Carl Levin, who left the Senate in 2015 after serving six terms and 36 years, died July 29, 2021.
Carl Levin was more than Michigan’s longest-serving senator in Washington — and the longest-serving Jewish U.S. senator in American history.
He was truly a “Giant of the Senate.”
Ironically, another senator who was also Jewish, Minnesota’s Al Franken, once wrote a book with the satirical title, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. Like Franken, Levin was a man who could laugh at himself. But that phrase would be anything but satire if it were used to describe Carl Levin. He really was all that — and more.
Levin, who left the Senate in 2015 after serving six terms and 36 years, died July 29, 2021. He was 87 years old.
But he is unlikely to be soon forgotten. Levin won near-universal acclaim for the work that he did as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he became famous for rooting out examples of waste and bloated and unnecessary spending. In his role as chair of the Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee, he fought hard and often successfully to hold Wall Street firms accountable, notably Goldman Sachs. He tried to limit the amount of surveillance intelligence agencies did on the communications of private American citizens.
Levin, perhaps more than any other contemporary senator, was a master of sometimes mind-numbing detail on virtually every topic that came before his committee. “You have to really know a subject if you are going to examine or cross-examine a witness,” he once told the National Journal, and woe could come unto anyone who testified before him without having done his homework.
Yet, though he had a strong profile on national issues, he was a Detroiter — and a Jewish Detroiter — to the core. Born in the city on June 28, 1934, he was the third of three children of Bess and Saul Levin, and grew up mainly on Boston Boulevard. All went to Roosevelt Elementary and Central High School in the city.
Earlier this year, when Sen. Levin’s book Getting to the Heart of the Matter: My 36 Years in the U.S. Senate was published by Wayne State University Press, he told me that he had been heavily influenced by being Jewish. “It surely did. I think the values in Judaism are important — the values of being charitable, of thinking of others, the important Jewish values, which I learned early in life.”
The history of antisemitism, he said, “has made me very sensitive to others who are victims of prejudices and discrimination.”
In the late 1970s, the senator and his wife, Barbara, and 10 other families formed a new congregation, T’chiyah, a small Reconstructionist congregation.
But besides Judaism, politics and public service were in Carl Levin’s blood. His father was a lawyer in practice with his brother Theodore “Ted” Levin who later became a highly respected U.S. District Court judge, the one for whom the federal courthouse in Detroit is now named.
Carl’s brother, Sander, three years older, preceded him into politics, serving as Michigan Senate majority leader before losing two close elections for governor and finally serving 36 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, matching his brother’s time in the Senate. “Sandy was always my hero,” Sen. Levin told this writer earlier this year; the brothers remained close all their lives.
Following high school, the future senator went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and then Harvard Law School. But to help pay for college, he worked summers in three auto plants, dirty and sometimes grueling work, which he later said gave him insight into both the difficulties the workers faced — and the weaknesses and inflexibility of the industry.
Following graduation from law school in 1959, Levin worked for several small firms in Detroit and became involved in Democratic Party politics, serving as a precinct delegate during John F. Kennedy’s campaign. A few years later, Frank Kelley, a recently elected Michigan attorney general, started a civil rights division, put the office in Detroit and hired a new assistant attorney general to run it: Carl Levin. “I knew he was going places,” Kelley said.
Not long after that, dismayed by the civil disturbances that devastated Detroit in 1967, Carl Levin decided to run for Detroit City Council in the hope that he “might be able to help start the process of rebuilding and healing my shattered hometown.”
Four years later, he was not only easily elected, but was the top vote-getter and became City Council president. He fought redlining, and tangled with HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over its reluctance to demolish dilapidated homes.
Most importantly, he later said, his battles with Mayors Roman Gribbs and mainly Coleman Young “would prove to be a valuable training ground for later tussles — and sometimes battles” with presidents when he got to the U.S. Senate.
The year after Carl Levin left City Council, U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin, a Republican from Traverse City, decided not to run for reelection, missed a lot of votes and then changed his mind.
Levin thought — correctly — that would make Griffin vulnerable, and it did. He got into the Senate race, ran a smart but underfunded campaign and managed to become the only Democrat to defeat a GOP incumbent that year.
He would go on to narrowly win reelection six years later, bucking the 1984 Reagan landslide in the state, and then go on to win four more terms by progressively larger margins. Unlike many incumbents, he was always willing to publicly debate his opponents.
In the U.S. Senate, a body notorious for huge egos and show horses, Carl Levin was a workhorse — and the voters knew it.
Elected Six Times
By the last time he ran in 2008, he was the closest thing to a universally admired politician one can imagine in these deeply polarized times. He won his sixth term with an astonishing 63% and more than 3 million votes — a Michigan record.
Another man known for his integrity, the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, once said that Levin “is the model of serious purpose, principle and personal decency, whose example ought to inspire the service of new and returning senators.”
Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist David Cay Johnston has made a career of skewering unethical politicians and officeholders. But he recognized that Levin was something different.
“Carl Levin served as the de facto conscience of the United States Senate for 36 years,” he wrote in lines for the cover of Sen. Levin’s book. “As chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Levin ferreted out wrongdoing, abuses of taxpayers and failed policies, its reports all issued with bipartisan agreement — a remarkable feat of dignity, duty and moral strength in our era.”
Sen. Levin was not only interested in national and international issues; he was a staunch defender of Detroit’s auto industry. While he was an environmentalist, he often opposed imposing what he felt were unreasonable fuel economy standards and worked to have them not make domestic cars less competitive.
He also fought against having Japan take part in free trade talks, arguing that its unfair trade practices killed jobs in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, he battled hard to get the Senate to support the federal “bailout” of Chrysler and General Motors in 2008-2009.
Levin was, throughout his career a strong, but by no means uncritical, supporter of Israel. He successfully worked to have the United States and Israel jointly develop missile defense systems.
“It is almost unimaginable to think of what would have happened if hundreds of missiles and rockets over the years coming at Israel had not been destroyed in flight before they hit their targets,” he wrote. However, he could be harshly critical of Israel “when it allowed illegal settlements that undermine a two-state solution, or when I believe it uses or condones the use of excessive force.”
However, he noted that he never forgot that “Israel is an island surrounded by an ocean of threats.”
Carl Levin was a man of many interests, a few of which bordered on the whimsical. He was very proud that when he was on the Roosevelt Memorial Commission, he successfully pushed to have a statue of Fala, FDR’s famous Scottish terrier, included at the president’s feet.
But perhaps most importantly, beyond his stand on any particular issue, was his continual work to find common ground, to reduce tensions among his colleagues, and to make the U.S. Senate work. “That meant being pragmatic and not ideologically rigid. I’ve always said that if you don’t come to elected office willing to compromise, you don’t come wanting to govern,” he said
When he decided to retire in 2014, he was asked why, since he was still healthy and was virtually certain to be reelected. Levin said he loved the Senate but wanted to spend more time with his wife and family. For many years, Michigan politicians from Gerald Ford to Jennifer Granholm have left the state for the Sunbelt or began careers as Washington lobbyists after leaving office.
Carl Levin moved back to Detroit, helped create the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School, and taught and shared his insights with students until he became ill.
His nephew, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, now represents Michigan’s 9th District in Congress, as did Andy’s father, Sandy, before his retirement.
Sen. Carl Levin is survived by his wife, Barbara Levin; daughters and sons-in-law, Kate Levin Markel, Laura and Daniel Levin, Erica Levin and Richard Fernandes; brother, Sander M. Levin; grandchildren, Noa, Bess, Benjamin, Samantha, Beatrice and Olivia.
He was the loving brother of the late Hannah Levin Gladstone.
Interment was at Clover Hill Park Cemetery. Contributions may be made to the Levin Center at Wayne Law, Wayne State University — Gift Processing PO Box 674602, Detroit, MI 48267-4602, (313) 577-2263; or Henry Ford Cancer Institute Development Office, 1 Ford Place #5A, Detroit, MI 48202-3450, (313) 876-1031, henryford.com/development/make-a-gift. Condolence acknowledgements may be emailed to: Levin.Family@Wayne.Edu. Arrangements by Ira Kaufman Chapel.
Jack Lessenberry is a veteran journalist who knew Sen. Levin for many years, and is the co-author of The People’s Lawyer, a biography of Frank Kelley.