Carl Levin, a six-term Democratic senator from Michigan who was an influential leader on national security and whose intellect and integrity made him one of the most widely respected lawmakers of recent times, died July 29 at a hospital in Detroit. He was 87.
He had lung cancer, said a family spokesman, Jim Townsend.
A Harvard-trained lawyer who wore reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, Levin was known for scholarly analysis of issues, sound-bite-free discourse and a collaborative approach to legislating that earned him the trust of colleagues who did not share his liberal political philosophy.
“We all listen to him, and we listen closest to him on the occasions when we disagree with him,” John McCain, R-Ariz., chairperson of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a 2014 tribute at Levin’s retirement.
Levin was the longest-serving senator in Michigan history and had the distinction of being half of one of the longest-lasting sibling teams in congressional history. His brother Sander Levin, older by three years, was a Democratic congressman from the Detroit area, and the two served simultaneously for more than three decades.
Carl Levin was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and spent the second half of his 36-year tenure as chairperson or ranking minority member on the Armed Services Committee, playing a key role in some of the most contentious issues to face the nation after 9/11.
Chief among them was President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Levin led opposition to the resolution granting Bush authority to initiate the war and later pushed for withdrawal of American troops, contending that only a political solution could stabilize that violence-torn country.
“Beginning the phased redeployment of American troops in 2006 would send a clear message to Iraqis,” Levin said during debate that year on a measure he authored, urging Bush to start the withdrawal process. “You, the Iraqis, must now decide whether you want a civil war or a nation.”
The Republicans, in the majority at the time, argued that Levin’s language, even though nonbinding, would have signaled American weakness, and the measure was rejected largely along party lines. During the administration of President Barack Obama, Levin took a similar stand on the war in Afghanistan, arguing that the United States should step up its efforts to recruit and train Afghan fighters instead of sending in more American fighters.
Among other issues, Levin was an outspoken critic of waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorized by the Bush administration for use against detainees. He was an advocate of nuclear arms control and led opposition to Bush’s plan for a ballistic missile defense system on grounds that it was too untested to warrant expensive implementation.
In addition to his involvement in defense issues, Levin was chairperson of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and led a series of high-profile probes into offshore tax-avoidance schemes and questionable financial industry practices. The work contributed to the enactment of new regulatory measures, including the 2010 Dodd-Frank law aimed at preventing another Wall Street meltdown and consumer abuses.
The panel’s two-year investigation of Goldman Sachs concluded that the firm profited in the run-up to the 2008 housing collapse by systematically misleading clients on investments — a practice that Levin branded “deceptive and immoral.”
An inquiry into the high-tech industry’s use of tax loopholes found that Microsoft saved billions of dollars by shifting profits offshore. While conceding that the company had not broken the law, he complained that these kinds of “gimmicks shift the burden of taxes to citizens that don’t use armies of lawyers and accountants and subsidiaries to lower their tax bill.”
In an era of ever-worsening partisanship, Levin stood out for his ability to work across the aisle. With McCain, he produced an annual defense-authorization bill that won bipartisan support. Levin brought that same cooperative approach to the investigations subcommittee.
“Levin today is looking even better in retrospect,” Loren Thompson, a national security expert at the right-leaning Lexington Institute think tank, said several years after the lawmaker’s retirement. “He was a model of what a legislator was supposed to be. He was a consensus builder; he was intellectual, and he was not reflexively ideological.”
Despite Levin’s opposition to the Iraq War, he opposed a 2007 measure offered by liberal Democrats to cut off funding for combat operations. “We don’t want to send the message to the troops” that they don’t have congressional support, he said, according to The Associated Press. “We’re going to support those troops.” The measure got a majority of Democratic votes but failed in the face of unanimous GOP opposition.
While Levin fought against what he considered unnecessary weapons systems and wasteful expenditures, he opposed deep defense cuts and criticized Congress’ across-the-board spending reductions as harmful to military readiness.
“I think a fundamental decision has been made — which is the correct one — which is that even though the military is going to be smaller, it’s not going to be hollow,” he told National Journal near the end of his Senate career. “The smaller force will be just as ready, it’ll be just as strong, it’ll be just as prepared, just as trained, just as well-equipped.”
With no military experience — a college deferment and a knee injury kept him out of the service — and a relatively small home-state military presence, Levin was an anomaly in the top Armed Services Committee slot. His background in Detroit’s urban politics made him even more so.
“I thought the stereotype about Democrats being soft on defense or unaware of security issues was one that needed to be broken,” Levin once told The Detroit News. “I didn’t feel … that people who care about affordable housing or drug treatment programs couldn’t be as equally determined to find the right ways to secure our nation.”
Carl Milton Levin was born on June 28, 1934, into a Detroit family steeped in civic affairs and New Deal Democratic politics. His father, Saul, was a lawyer and member of the Michigan Corrections Commission. His uncle, Theodore Levin, was chief judge of the federal district court in Detroit.
In 1956, Levin received a bachelor’s degree in political science at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Three years later, he graduated from Harvard Law School and joined a Detroit law firm.
In 1961, he married Barbara Halpern. Besides his wife, survivors include three daughters, Kate Levin Markel, Laura Levin and Erica Levin; his brother; and several grandchildren.
Levin came to public attention as the first general counsel of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and in 1969 ran for the Detroit City Council, seeking to heal racial divisions in the wake of the city’s deadly 1967 riot.
In his second four-year term, he was council president and worked with Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor. He also tangled with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over what he considered the agency’s poor service, giving him a local perspective that he took to Washington.
In 1978, Levin ran for the Senate seat occupied by two-term Republican Robert Griffin. Griffin hurt his chances for a third term by initially announcing plans to retire. By the time he changed his mind, he was ripe for the charge that he lacked interest in the job.
Levin won with 52% of the vote and six years later defeated former astronaut Jack Lousma by a similar margin. That was his last tight race; he won his sixth term in 2008 with 63% and, by all accounts, would have won a seventh had he run again.
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, once remarked, “I don’t know if you could run Gandhi against Carl and have it be successful.”