Senate pays tribute to former Sen. Carl Levin as no frills, fearless and 'a senator's senator'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. senators took to the the floor of the chamber on Friday to pay tribute to former Sen. Carl Levin, who had lung cancer and died Thursday at age 87.

They recalled the Harvard-educated attorney and former taxi driver as a "brilliant" policy wonk, a "big-hearted workhorse" with a detail-oriented approach, a "son of Detroit" with a self-deprecating sense of humor, "unfailing" civility and "fierce" intellect.

They fondly joked about his often disheveled appearance and spoke admiringly of his steadfast commitment to public service and the traditions of the Senate over his 36 years in office. 

Late Friday, senators also passed by voice vote a resolution honoring Levin's life and legacy.

"He epitomized what a senator should be: A person of complete integrity, a person who knew the issues, whatever they were," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who served decades with Levin and is now dean of the chamber. 

Carl Levin

Leahy said both Democrats and Republicans recognized that they "could take his word for anything" and often turned to Levin for his take on a range of complicated issues in recognition of his intellect and preparation.

"We would gather around Carl Levin, both Republicans and Democrats, and say, what do you think of this issue? What did you study? and we would get it chapter and verse. it was always accurate," Leahy said. "He was what I consider a senator's senator."

The Vermont Democrat also lamented that more senators didn't follow Levin's lead and read the intelligence on the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite the claims of officials within the Bush administration.

Leahy said because Levin actually took the time to read the intelligence, he was one of only three senators to vote against the authorization of military force in Iraq. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

"They knew there were no weapons of mass destruction," Leahy said. "I remember (him) saying, 'Please do your due diligence.'"

It is the second time this week the Senate has lost one of its own, following the death Monday of former Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi after a bicycle accident. 

Levin's family held a private funeral Friday. A public memorial is planned for the coming weeks, though details are not yet set. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Friday that many have been called a "model senator" but few earned the title like Levin did. Schumer again called Levin, "Mr. Integrity."

"He was no frills, hyper-focused on policy and results and fearless when taking on entrenched powers. When the Pentagon was profligate, you can be sure that Carl Levin was there," Schumer said of the former Armed Services Committee chairman.

"When large financial institutions fleeced consumers, you could be sure Carl Levin was there. And whenever and wherever the interests of assembly-line employees, ship workers or service members were at stake, you could be sure Carl Levin was there."

Schumer noted that decades after Levin worked the assembly line in Metro Detroit auto plants, Levin proudly carried his 1953 union membership card in his wallet — "a silent reminder of where he came from, and who he fought for."

Schumer noted that the tributes pouring in from around the country often described Levin as "disheveled," with his rumpled suit., stark white hair, and glasses perched "precariously" at the end of his nose.

"Well, he may have been disheveled in his appearance, but there was nothing, nothing disheveled about his mind and principles," Schumer said. 

"His intellect was fierce, a sharpened blade, designed to cut to the core of an issue or, sometimes, cut through the un-impressive answers of a witness in front of his committee."

Schumer also noted Levin's role in shaping U.S. defense policy, ranging from heavy issues of national security, billion-dollar budget decisions but also a Michigan Korean War veteran, whom Schumer didn't identify.

The man was denied a veterans’ loan because his military records were destroyed in a fire, so Levin had his staff find the records, and he then went to visit with the veteran in person and deliver four service medals.

"He was an example that inspired; and one to aspire to," Schumer said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., flanked by Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., left, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Senators hailed Levin's policy priorities, championing his work on military issues — from pushing for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, as well as his push to shore up the auto industry in 2008-09 and overall advocacy for working families.  

They detailed his many congressional investigations at chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, from abusive credit card practices to the Enron scandal. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Lansing Democrat who served with Levin for 14 years, noted that​​​​ Levin in his youth had admired Harry S. Truman, who as senator drove across the country investigating defense contractors committing fraud and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. 

Levin "relished" the chance to cross examine those he suspected of ripping off taxpayers and the public and, while his committee room was never a "literal" trial by fire, Stabenow said, "He certainly turned up the heat on unscrupulous executives, special interests, or anybody who tried to get rich at the expense of everyday Americans."

"Those executives were sweating because they knew that Senator Levin had done his homework. He'd dig so deep, he knew more about what they were going to say, than they would," Stabenow said. 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Levin's "dutiful, diligent and detail-oriented approach" led him to build expertise and respect across a wide range of issues but the pinnacle of his career was his time at the head of the Armed Services Committee. 

"I certainly did not always reach the same conclusions that Carl did, but his independence, his genuine humble curiosity and his affection for the men and women who wear the uniform were impossible to dispute," McConnell said.

"He was earnest. He was solid, forthright and devoted to the defense of our nation in ways that he thought best."

McConnell added he especially admired Levin's consistent defense of the filibuster — the 60-vote super-majority required to pass most Senate legislation — among other Senate structures. 

"He never let short-term political facts cloud his long-term judgment in that crucial area," the Kentucky senator said.

McConnell's statement alluded to progressive Democrats clamoring to end the filibuster in order to pass President Joe Biden's agenda. Levin mounted a passionate defense of the filibuster in his recent memoir

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to a reporter following a cable news interview before the start of a two-week recess, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 23, 2021.

Sen. Gary Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat, succeeded Levin in the Senate. Levin had no interest in the "trappings" of political celebrity, never chased front-page headlines or the cameras on Capitol Hill, Peters said. 

"He just wanted to get things done," Peters said. 

Years after Levin had retired, Peters said folks around Michigan would tell him how much they respected the former senator.

"They knew that even if they didn't agree with him, he was thoughtful, he was considering. ... They respected his decision making, and they trusted what he was doing and thought was best for Michigan and the country," Peters said. 

Those same principles inspired such strong loyalty in his staff that some staffers worked for him for decades. 

Peters said he would always remember the advice Levin gave him on election night after he was declared the winner.

"He pulled me aside and said, 'Just remember Gary. In the Senate, there'll be people who will try to pull you in all sorts of directions. But never forget where you came from, never forget who you are and always work to bring people together despite the partisanship and polarization around you."

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic majority whip, said Levin thought differently about legislation than most senators, with a keen attention to detail, often asking for a copy of the language of an amendment and taking policy proposals home to read at night. 

"That in itself was unusual. We usually trust our staff to look at copies of amendments," Durbin said. 

He noted Levin arrived in Washington in 1979 driving a 1974 American-made Dodge Dart with a hole in the floor board, and was still driving the same car 10 years later — "that's how devoted he was to the U.S. auto industry and its workers and unions."

Durbin also raised Levin's "no" vote on the war in Iraq, noting how difficult a decision it must have been as chairman of the Armed Services Committee at the time. Durbin also voted no. 

"That vote on his part took extraordinary courage and history has shown that he was right," Durbin said. 

"He left a powerful example of what we can achieve in life and in politics when we choose integrity over ideology, and common good over confrontation."