(JTA) — Carl Levin, the Jewish Michigander whose avuncularity masked the skills of a fierce inquisitor during his 36 years in the Senate, has died at 87.
The Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School announced Levin’s passing on Thursday. It did not give a date or cause of death. Levin was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago.
Levin, first elected to the Senate in 1978, served 36 years, becoming his state’s longest-serving senator.
Levin was from 2001 until his retirement in 2015 the chairman or the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was always a little disheveled and spoke softly; his staffers described him as that rarity, a kind and accommodating boss in the world’s most intense pressure chamber.
He could however be fierce in eliciting testimony in the Senate as chairman of the subcommittee on investigations. Hauling before his committee Goldman Sachs executives in 2010, reviewing the carnage of the 2008 financial collapse, who quoted from their internal emails, the Detroit Free Press reported: “You knew it was a ‘shitty deal’ and you didn’t tell your clients. Does that bother you at all?”
Levin’s liberal economic outlook was shaped as he watched the diminishment of his once muscular and beloved city, Detroit. He fought hard for car manufacturers in Congress, knowing the lifeblood that they were for his state’s working class. He worked as a taxi driver while in college — he said he knew Detroit’s every block — and on an assembly line at Chrysler.
Levin was a dove who spoke out early against the George W. Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq, but as chairman of the committee that shaped military policy he was also a defender of protections for the armed forces, sometimes to what fellow Democrats was a fault; he successfully prevented bids to take investigations of sexual misconduct out of the hands of the line of command.
He told interviewers he grew up in a middle-class household in Detroit and that his parents, Saul and Bess Levin, were Zionists; Bess was active in Hadassah. His brother “Sandy and I and our sister Hannah used to call ourselves Hadassah Orphans because when we got home in the afternoon, my mother was never there,” he said in an oral history for the Detroit Jewish federation. “She was volunteering for Hadassah.”
Levin was a go-to senator for lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was attentive to their requests for defense assistance to Israel. However, he parted ways with AIPAC when the lobby, heeding the Israeli government at the time, opposed the emerging Iran nuclear deal. Even after his retirement in 2015, as the deal neared completion, Levin remained influential, urging his former colleagues to back the deal.
He was devoted to the entire state, traveling to its farthest corners to meet constituents. A staffer recalled to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he convened the staff after a woman in an airport complained to him that she had not heard back from his office after writing. The talk the staffer said, was “serious,” but not a rebuke and not unkind.
Levin’s older brother Sander Levin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, and from 2010-2012, when Sander Levin was the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and Carl Levin chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, they were the most powerful brothers in Washington.
They were throughout their lives the closest of friends. Sander, who retired in 2019 — replaced by his son and Carl’s nephew, Andy Levin — described his sadness in 2014 anticipating Carl’s retirement.
“We’ve been the longest-serving siblings in the history of Congress,” Sander Levin told the Detroit Free Press. “We were raised together and have always been very close … we roomed together at law school … whenever there were issues of common interests, we talked quite a lot. And we sat together for 32 State of the Union Addresses. So it will be very different not sitting together this year.”
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