First person: Sen. Carl Levin was a Michigan giant, allergic to pretension
We’ve lost a giant with the passing of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who died Thursday at the age of 87. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
As most know, the Detroit Democrat was a colossus in Washington and Michigan’s longest-serving U.S. senator, retiring in 2015 after 36 years. Chair of the Armed Services Committee, he was a champion for Michigan, the Great Lakes and the auto industry — and he held Wall Street CEOs accountable for hiding profits overseas.
I was lucky enough to know Carl since I was a young man, first getting to know him playing pickup basketball in the driveway of his best friend, attorney Eugene Driker.
Carl went out of his way to tell people they should call him by his first name. He was smart and funny and treated me like gold, taking time to talk to me about things going on in Detroit and the wider world.
As a junior at Albion College in the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Public Service, one of the requirements was to do an internship in the public sector.
I shot for the moon, applying to spend the semester in Levin’s Washington, D.C. office and was accepted in 1979, his freshman year in the Senate after he defeated Sen. Robert Griffin in an upset insurgent campaign.
Carl assigned me to research and advise on grand jury reform. A Harvard-trained lawyer and former general counsel to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, he believed grand juries had too much secretive power and were too susceptible to manipulation by federal prosecutors.
One day, he came to my tiny desk in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and asked if I wanted to drive him to the White House that afternoon for a meeting with President Jimmy Carter about the after-effects of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties which facilitated the United States’ withdrawal from control of the Panama Canal.
Carl had won a coveted seat on the Armed Services Committee and established himself early on as a serious-minded workhorse: a force to be reckoned with in examining Pentagon spending and shaping policy for America’s strategic interests across the globe.
I got the keys to his car but was shocked and more than a little embarrassed that it was so old and beat up. There were literally holes in the floorboards: you could see the street below your feet, like the Flintstones. I wondered how I could drive to the White House in this beater. It didn’t bother him a bit.
He took me with him to meet the likes of AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and sent me to meet with Sen. George McGovern to get support for a Great Lakes protection bill. As a college kid gopher, thanks to Carl, I got to learn the corridors of the Capitol.
It always struck me how he and staunch conservatives like Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, would battle it out, and afterwards — particularly with Simpson — they would be the best of friends. It was refreshing how they were diametrically opposed on policy, but respected and genuinely liked each other. They shared a love for America.
Carl was a formidable campaigner. In his 1990 re-election campaign against then-U.S. Rep. Bill Schuette, he hired me as his political director. We campaigned across the state, this time in my car, a Ford Probe where the alarm had a mind of its own.
President George H.W. Bush was pushing to continue President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” missile defense system.
Carl was opposed to the untested, budget-busting program which he correctly viewed as destabilizing to nuclear arms détente with the Soviet Union.
At rallies in Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Flint, Midland and Detroit, he would lean into the mic with that rare combination of incandescent brilliance and everyman DNA: “We don’t need Star Wars, we need Star Schools!”
He won by one of the largest margins in state history (57 percent to 41 percent), a year in which his fellow Democrat at the top of the ticket, Gov. Jim Blanchard, lost to John Engler.
As every former Carl staffer will tell you, there were certain “Carl-isms,” like “Assume that what you’re doing will appear on the front page of tomorrow’s Detroit News. If you’re comfortable with that, you’re probably doing the right thing.”
He was widely beloved as the conscience of the Senate — and beloved in VFW halls, union locals and community centers, where he would wryly intone “As you can see, I’m balding, my suit is wrinkled and there are holes in my shoes. . . but there are more of us than there are of them!”
Cheers and whooping and laughter always followed.
When my mentor, U.S. Circuit Judge Damon Keith died in 2019 and we were planning his funeral, Carl called me. He said he wanted to attend the viewing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
His health was failing and I saw he had a hard time walking when I met him at the entrance. He had a cane. I took his arm and held on tight. He managed to get around, slowly but deliberately, to pay his respects.
I never let go of his arm. Around me I could hear the murmurs: “Isn’t that Carl Levin? Oh what a good man. C’mon, let’s go over and say hi.”
He got mobbed by people who wanted to just shake his hand and thank him for his distinguished service and tell him how much they missed him, and what a great job he’d done for Detroit and for Michigan and for the United States.
The outpouring of love for him swelled my heart. He was SO happy to engage with the well-wishers. There was that unmistakable bright flicker in his eyes and a warm smile that just pulled you in. A couple days later I again took his arm and walked him to his seat at Hartford Baptist Church for Uncle Damon’s funeral service.
I never saw him again though we had talked on the phone about this and that. He encouraged me. Throughout a big part of my life, since high school, he had always looked for ways to help my career.
When I was serving as the city’s chief lawyer, he would call with great advice and insight. After all, before he was a U.S. senator he was an incredibly effective president of the Detroit City Council.
Carl Levin was a statesman. A regular guy with a comb-over in a rumpled suit, allergic to pretensions. He kept his compass as he fought for us in Washington. The word “beloved” comes to mind.
Godspeed Carl. Thank you. I’ll miss you dearly.
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