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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Carl and me

by Walt Sorg
Let me tell you about the time I accidentally took Carl Levin to the wrong country. But before we get to that, a few other personal thoughts about the man who has served this nation for 34 years and counting in the U.S. Senate, from which he has announced his retirement.

We met on Nov. 3, 1970. I was a 20-year-old radio reporter who had wangled an invitation into Sander Levin’s gubernatorial election-night hotel suite in downtown Detroit. Carl Levin, Sander’s younger brother, was president of what was then known as the Detroit Common Council, and also managed his brother’s campaign. 

On that night, 36-year-old Carl Levin demonstrated a strong command of unprintable but highly colorful language as he anxiously awaited definitive returns in an election ultimately won by William Milliken by just 44,000 votes. There would be a rematch four years later, but it wasn’t even close. I have often wondered if there would have been a Sen. Carl Levin if we had elected Sander Levin as governor.

Flash forward eight years. Now Carl Levin was the candidate, running in the Democratic primary to take on Republican Robert Griffin. At the time I was press secretary to House Speaker Bobby Crim. I owned a small airplane at the time — the “Cash Cow” — and was recruited by Levin’s campaign to fly the candidate around the state.

That’s when I really learned about Carl Levin. I learned that he was endlessly inquisitive, picking my brain for any insights I might provide (as unlikely as that was) into other candidates, regional issues outside of his southeast Michigan base and even my family’s history in Republican politics. (My dad staffed the successful Senate campaign of Illinois’ Chuck Percy in 1968 and was a political appointee in the Nixon administration.)

I learned that his faith was very private and very deep. One rainy afternoon in Marquette he made a campaign volunteer frantic by locating a synagogue so Levin could attend services that evening. It was either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

I learned of his near addiction to junk food, especially Burger King whoppers. I’m not sure we ever ate anything else, other than at political events, in the course of the campaign. Given his excellent health today at the age of 78, I’m guessing he has reformed — at least, a little.

Then there’s that day we ended up in the wrong country.

Levin had been meeting with labor leaders at the UAW retreat at Black Lake and needed a ride early Sunday back to Detroit. We were cruising peacefully when I noticed that my radios weren’t acting right. I couldn’t talk to anyone, and the navigation radios weren’t functioning either.

“Uh, Carl, we have a small problem. It’s not a safety thing, but … uh … my radios aren’t working. I can fly in the right general direction using the compass, but I’m not exactly sure where we are.”

Outwardly, he was his usual cool-and-calm self. He never told me what was going on inside, but I assumed it wasn’t quite as tranquil.

We finally made a blind descent through the clouds. Suddenly, the communication radios were working and I made contact with an airport tower: London, Ontario. Rather than trust the reincarnated radios, I decided to continue to London after being assured by the candidate that 1) he had an uncle who used to be mayor of London, and 2) the only campaign event he’d miss because of the detour would be a black church in Detroit. “If I don’t have their votes already, I’m going to lose anyhow!” he chuckled.

And it turned out there was a commercial flight from London to Windsor a half hour after we landed, so he was only a couple of hours late getting to Detroit.

It’s been 34-and-a-half years since that flight. Neither one of us has forgotten. For my part I have never forgotten how kind Levin was to me in a moment of total personal humiliation.

That errant flight in the autumn of 1978, and Carl Levin’s response to it, demonstrated why he has accomplished something very unique in politics: People will vote for him even when they disagree with his positions. People trusted him to do the right thing in a business where everyone is suspect.

(Political columnist Walt Sorg can be reached at sorg@lansingcitypulse.com)

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