One major thought popped into my brain when I heard Carl Levin had decided not to run for a seventh term in the U.S. Senate next year: “Class is a lot like pornography. You can’t define it, but you sure know it when you see it.”
Carl is a class act, through and through. And in today’s political culture -- in which self-importance, ideological certainty and noisy posturing are sadly the norm -- he stands out from the crowd.
I had a chance to see Carl’s class in action way back in 1978, when I ran against him in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat then occupied by Republican Robert Griffin. At that time, Carl was the president of the Detroit City Council, and his name was well-known to Michigan voters through his brother, Sandy, who had lost two close races for governor to Republican Bill Milliken.
Carl was the overwhelming favorite in that race, which also featured six Democratic hopefuls running around in his dust -- including me. As we campaigned around the state, I found it hard to disagree with the things he said … and, equally importantly, with the way he said them. Thoughtful. Well-reasoned. Sensible. He was an opponent, sure, but never hostile on a personal level, always carrying out the discussion as a reasoning adult.
I came in second in that primary, and, although no one likes to lose, I was happy to endorse him for election. I’ve stayed in touch with him ever since.
Levin’s announcement last week that he would not run again was right in character. He and his wife, Barbara, “struggled” before deciding that he could best serve his state and nation by “doing my job without the distraction of campaigning for re-election.”
That’s a job he’s always taken seriously. Among his priorities:
* Going after tax avoidance schemes “that have no economic justification or purpose other than to avoid paying taxes.” Over a three-year period, 30 of the most profitable US corporations paid no taxes, while running up more than $150 billion in profits.
* Addressing "a growing blight on our political system ... the use of secret money to fund political campaigns." Many organizations with plainly political purposes are getting “charitable” tax exemptions from the IRS, while sloshing hundreds of millions into the political system.
Reporters and other media types loved to caricature Levin as “frumpy,” with reading glasses on the tip of his nose, a permanently rumpled suit and an avuncular aspect. That’s fun, of course, but it highlights his unwillingness to posture as a pretty boy.
Ever since I’ve known him, Carl Levin has been his own man – in politics as in personal appearance. And his constant integrity in all things ranks him in my mind with the very small number of truly class acts in Michigan politics and public service.
Levin ranks with Milliken, Hart
He‘s right up there with former Gov. Milliken and the late Sen. Phil Hart, a Democrat who died in 1976. All three men displayed important and rare qualities, such as civility to allies and opponents alike and a willingness to look at all sides of a question and decide on the merits, not on ideological dogma or pure partisanship. They also had the ability to advocate for and do the right thing, regardless of political posturing; as Milliken used to say, “good policy is the best politics.”
Interestingly, the careers of all three are powerfully marked by what they got done while in office. That they were so effective is testimony to the idea that the hardest but most important political skill is the ability to lead others by virtue of one’s own example.
Carl Levin, Phil Hart and Bill Milliken were all servant leaders who got things done because colleagues trusted them to do the right thing and, accordingly, were willing to follow their lead.
Politics is a rough business, as or more competitive as any game. And I’ve always felt you learn a lot about your opponent when competing, regardless of the game. Athletic contests are among the best places to see true character. The guy who cheats at line calls in tennis or improves his lie in golf with a toe is likely the same guy who will behave unethically when the pressure is on.
And that’s a guy who’s not to be trusted.
People with class are trusted, by allies as well as opponents. Class acts are not goody two-shoes. They are people who willingly enter into the sweat and struggle of the political world and who succeed in it, leading others by virtue of their personal qualities.
Carl Levin is a perfect example. As someone who once competed against him, I learned to trust his special qualities and admire his achievements. Michigan voters should be so lucky with his successor, whomever he or she may be.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.