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The Golden Age of the Senate, when personal integrity and partisan harmony reigned, seems always to be hovering somewhere near the edge of living memory. The death of former Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan last month, at age 87, is a case in point. Levin was remembered by the New York Times for his friendly relations with his onetime Republican colleague, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, with whom he served on the Armed Services Committee. Levin’s hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, quoted another committee colleague, the late John McCain, who regarded Levin as “a model of serious purpose, firm principle and personal decency.”
All of which, strictly speaking, was true. Levin was a member of a large and exceptionally accomplished Jewish family in Detroit with deep roots and varied experience in public service. His lawyer father Saul was Michigan’s corrections commissioner. His uncle Theodore was chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Detroit, where the federal courthouse bears his name. His older brother Sander was a state senator and, later, longtime member of Congress from Michigan’s 9th Congressional District, a seat now held by his son.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1959, Carl Levin practiced law in Detroit before becoming a public defender and general counsel to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Elected to the City Council in 1968, he rose, during the next decade, to become council president and a close ally and adviser to Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young. Levin’s own ambitions, however, extended beyond his hometown’s limits. In 1977, Republican Senate Whip Robert Griffin announced that he would not run for reelection in the following year. Griffin changed his mind, but Levin entered the race for the 1978 Democratic nomination and narrowly defeated the incumbent.
In the following four decades, Levin never faced a serious challenge, ultimately serving six terms and becoming Michigan’s longest-serving U.S. senator before retiring in 2015.
Levin’s interest in the Senate was corporate malfeasance and tax avoidance and, in particular, fraud in the financial industry, which he pursued as chairman of the Permanent Committee on Investigations. He also served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee during 2001-03 and 2007-15, where he doggedly investigated, in equal measure, wasteful Pentagon spending and corrupt defense contractors. Toward the end of his tenure, he was instrumental in ending the ban on gay people in the armed forces.
By the standards of 2021, on these issues, Levin might well be described as a centrist. While opposing the war in Iraq, he had vigorously supported the Bush administration’s military policies in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 and, in general, bipartisan measures in the war on terror. He opposed Democratic efforts to transfer jurisdiction from military commanders to civilian officials in sexual assault cases and, in 2013, defying his party’s leadership, argued in favor of keeping the filibuster as a measure of protection for the rights of the Senate minority, especially in judicial nominations. He defended the filibuster once again this past year in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, calling its proposed abolition “short-sighted.”
His zeal as the Senate’s corporate watchdog did not extend so much to Detroit’s embattled auto manufacturers and other Michigan industries, which he faithfully promoted. He favored taxpayer-funded bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler and opposed federal fuel-economy mandates. Still, it would be difficult to mistake Levin for anything other than the liberal Democrat that he was and always remained. His investigative instincts were largely dormant during the successive Clinton White House scandals. He was a stalwart supporter of federal intervention in education, a consistent antagonist of the National Rifle Association, and for years tried to get the military prison at Guantanamo Bay closed.
He was also something of a stylistic throwback. As a Senate committee chairman, he seemed to revel in his inquisitorial role: his great height and bulk, clothed in rumpled blue-serge suits, hunched over the rostrum, reading glasses perched on the end of a nose underneath the Senate’s most ostentatious comb-over since the heyday of his Michigan predecessor, the Republican Arthur Vandenberg.
Philip Terzian is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.
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Original Author: Philip Terzian
Original Location: Carl Levin, 1934-2021